The Legacy of Chief Justice William Rehnquist


Jay Sekulow

May 24, 2011

4 min read




September 19, 2005

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was one of America's greatest Chief Justices.  He was a staunch defender of our Constitution, an important advocate for a judiciary that interprets rather than makes law, and a role model for those of us who believe it is important to place a premium on the rule of law.

Chief Justice Rehnquist's work helped to advance the idea that the best means of preserving individual freedom and human dignity is by enforcing the limits on government power set forth in our Constitution, including a judiciary that does not legislate from the bench.  His defense of a method of judicial interpretation that is constrained by Constitutional text and original meaning, his recognition of the preeminent role of democratic institutions at both the state and federal levels, and, at the same time, his understanding that courts at times must enforce the limitations on power imposed upon Congress and the other political branches - these are the hallmarks of a judge who understood that no one is above the law.

Chief Justice Rehnquist commanded tremendous respect at the Court, even in this period when the Justices were divided over substantial Constitutional issues.  He was instrumental in leading the Court back to a due regard for the role of the states and our political branches.   He also played a key role in directing the Court toward a more proper and logical understanding of Church - State relations, making clear that the Constitution ensures government neutrality toward religion rather than removing religion altogether from the public square.

After a long line of Warren Court cases that jeopardized our nation's ability to sustain effective law enforcement efforts, Chief Justice Rehnquist led the Court to greater faithfulness to the Constitution in the area of criminal procedure, which, no doubt, helped to facilitate the important reduction in violent crime we have witnessed over the past couple of decades.

Early on, William Rehnquist was devoted to an approach to judicial decision making that employed only legal tools.  Politics had no place in judging.  What mattered to the Chief was the Constitution and laws of the United States as they were written and understood by their framers.  In this regard, the Chief Justice respected the separation of government powers established by our Constitution.  And, importantly, he avoided fueling what is perhaps the most dangerous threat to judicial independence - a form of judging that bespeaks arrogance through a disregard for the will of the people in areas where the Constitution gives them the final say. 

His tenure leaves an indelible mark on the legal and cultural landscape of this nation.  The Chief Justice served the nation with distinction as he embraced the political and cultural issues of the day and sought to bring a constitutional understanding that was consistent with the framers of the Constitution.  Chief Justice Rehnquist approached each case with honor and integrity a hallmark of a Chief Justice that will certainly contribute to his lasting legacy on the court.

Chief Justice Rehnquist clearly understood the importance of the First Amendment protections outlined in the Constitution.

I had the privilege of appearing before Justice Rehnquist numerous times for oral arguments on key precedent-setting cases.  Chief Justice Rehnquist agreed with the our position in numerous cases including the distribution of religious materials at airports, the creation of student-led Bible clubs on public school campuses, the ability for religious organizations to use public school facilities after hours, the protection of the First Amendment rights for pro-life demonstrators, and ensuring that minors could exercise their First Amendment rights by participating in political campaigns.

At the funeral for Chief Justice Rehnquist, President Bush delivered these most appropriate words:  "In every chapter of his life, William Rehnquist stood apart for his powerful intellect and clear convictions. In a profession that values disciplined thought and persuasive ability, a talent like his gets noticed in a hurry. ... William Rehnquist led the court for nearly two decades and earned a place among our greatest Chief Justices. He built consensus through openness and collegiality."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will be missed.

Jay Sekulow is Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a constitutional law firm and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.