How William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia set the stage for a conservative turnaround on the U.S. Supreme Court.
(Page 2 of 2)
In one noteworthy case involving the Tenth Amendment that Lee insisted on appealing to the high court over the objection of conservatives in the administration, the Court overturned what had been one of the strongest precedents on federalism, National League of Cities v. Usery, as conservatives predicted would happen. After several more bitter disputes with the conservatives in the White House and the Justice Department, Lee resigned in 1985.
(Scalia’s other great disappointment was his rejection by Princeton, his first choice. “I was an Italian boy from Queens, not quite the Princeton type,” Scalia said years later. He went to Georgetown instead, graduating first in his class. Biskupic recounts that Scalia’s budding conservatism and dedication to his Catholic faith were strongly reinforced at Georgetown.)
ALTHOUGH THEY AGREED on many things, Rehnquist was a very different man from Scalia. After finishing first in his class at Stanford Law School, Rehnquist spent a year as a clerk for Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson, and then joined a law firm in Phoenix, where he later connected with the Goldwater campaign. While Scalia was (and still is) always argumentative, always the showman and jokester, always the most fun, outspoken, and opinionated person in any gathering, Rehnquist was subdued, a bit shy, and careful and exact in his words, his writings, and even in his everyday life.
Rehnquist’s confirmation for chief justice was a slog through predictable liberal hyperbole. During his years on the Court, Rehnquist had been the voice of the right, taking strong stands for states’ rights and federalism, against abortion (he was one of only two dissenters in Roe v. Wade), for school prayer, against busing and other race-related integration policies, and for the death penalty. He had also been in the forefront in opposing Warren Court protections for criminal defendants, and a strong defender of federalism; if that wasn’t enough, he had been Nixon’s point man, at the Office of Legal Counsel, on several Watergate-related issues, and on the legalities of wiretapping and surveillance of American citizens. But the Republican majority in the Senate held firm, and Rehnquist was approved by a vote of 65-33. Scalia, on the other hand, whose confirmation came just a couple of weeks after Rehnquist’s, easily breezed through on a unanimous vote of 98-0.
It is perhaps ironic that Rehnquist, who had been opposed by most Senate liberals, moved toward the center in his later years on many issues, where Scalia, who had gained unanimous approval in the Senate, moved to the right. Scalia’s unanimous confirmation was never lost on the left. According to Biskupic, some Democrats, including Joe Biden, would say they wished they could have their votes back. “The vote I most regret casting out of all the ones I ever cast,” Biden later said, “was voting for Scalia.”
Scalia’s arrival, in September 1986, on the same day that Rehnquist became chief, signaled the beginning of a major shift on the Court to the right that would take another 20 years, culminating in the addition of Justices Clarence Thomas in 1991 and John Roberts and Samuel Alito in 2005-2006. Rehnquist, who had often been the only conservative dissenter, would now be joined by another conservative and another justice who adhered to the philosophy espoused by the Reaganites. Add to that the fact that Rehnquist was now chief justice, enabling him to exert more power over the Court generally.
Although Scalia and Rehnquist were both conservatives and had similar judicial and political philosophies, they differed in their approach to constitutional interpretation. By his own definition, Scalia is a textualist. The Constitution and the laws enacted by Congress say what they mean, in his estimate, and they mean what they say. As one writer said about Scalia, “If the proper meaning of the text is clear, [Scalia believes] judges should then determine whether it provides support for the claimed individual right or governmental authority. If so, the claim is valid; if not, it should be rejected. The analysis is complete.”
Scalia’s philosophy is rounded out by several other issues, not the least of which is respect for the separation of powers. Ever since he headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (three years after Rehnquist held that position) and was charged with the responsibility of defending, against Congress, the White House’s assertion that Richard Nixon’s papers and tapes belonged to him personally, Scalia has been suspicious of Congress and a firm believer in defending the executive branch from incursions on its power by Congress. He is also a strong federalist — Scalia believes that the Constitution clearly establishes not only the roles of the three branches of government, but the relationship between the federal and state governments. He contends that the structural designs of the Constitution, i.e., the separation of powers and federalism, are better able to protect individual liberty than the Bill of Rights — which is exactly the argument the federalists made when the Constitution was adopted, reluctantly agreeing to include the Bill of Rights in order to get the states to ratify it. Scalia is also a strong advocate of judicial restraint, believing that courts should not exceed their constitutional mandate, should not confuse their role with that of the legislature, and should preserve concepts of predictability and stability.
Rehnquist’s position on most of the foregoing did not differ much from Scalia’s. But Rehnquist never had a substantive theory of constitutional interpretation. According to another of his former clerks, “He took each case as it came. He thought that the Constitution was not designed to shape all of our behavior but to box in elected officials at the margins….He did not see the sky falling, the way Scalia sometimes does.” To Rehnquist, tradition, precedent, and social order were more important, as they were to the old right.
REHNQUIST’S 34 YEARS on the Supreme Court were crucially important to the conservative cause. Since his appointment as an associate justice in 1972, Rehnquist had been the Court’s voice of the right, and over the course of his long career on the Court, and as he was joined by the other Reagan appointees and went from dissenter to chief justice, what had once been dissents became majority opinions. In many instances, his conservative philosophy thus became the law of the land.
First and foremost, Rehnquist had helped launch the federalist revolution — consistent with his long-held belief that the federal government should share power with the states — by overturning dozens of federal statutes that had injected federal authority into what should have been the prerogative of the states. He also was responsible for vastly limiting the role of the federal courts in the lives of citizens by reducing, if not eliminating, their role in running governmental institutions such as prisons and school districts. By expanding the scope of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, the courts had, since the Franklin Roosevelt administration, given the federal government the power to regulate virtually anything even slightly related to interstate commerce. The Rehnquist Court changed that, reasserting the doctrine that the Tenth Amendment limited the federal role to “enumerated powers” and left the rest to the states. In its lengthy obituary after his death in 2005, the New York Times wrote that over the course of his career on the Court, Rehnquist “managed to translate many of his long-held [conservative] views into binding national precedent.”
Perhaps even more important was the foundation Rehnquist had laid when he was the only conservative on the Court — a foundation that over time helped the more recent conservative appointees, starting with Scalia, to move the Court as they have. According to the Times obituary, Rehnquist “took the long view: with seeming nonchalance, he would plant a phrase in an opinion in the expectation that it would take root, blossom and turn out to be even more useful in some future case. Time proved him right, not always, but often enough.” His clerks, in those early days, dubbed him the Lone Ranger and gave him an action figure of the masked Texas Ranger, which he kept on his desk. According to one of those former clerks, Rehnquist did much of his best work in those early dissents, largely because he could say what he wanted to say without having to water down his points in order to accommodate other justices.
After he became chief justice in 1986, Rehnquist’s opinions did become more accommodating — probably necessarily so, as he needed to get the votes of other justices, particularly those of Justices O’Connor and Kennedy, to get a majority vote. Scalia’s opinions, on the other hand (and of course Scalia has always been an associate justice), rarely make accommodations to anyone, but are more likely to simply state his own, unadulterated point of view.
AS WE LOOK BACK over the years since Ronald Reagan left the White House, we recognize that real conservative victories — the kind where something is actually changed rather than an election won or a piece of meaningless legislation defeated (or passed) — more often than not have come from the courts. No longer are the federal courts the bastion of liberalism, finding new rights where none existed before, paving the way for wider federal control of every conceivable part of human endeavor, or expanding the scope of legislation way beyond the intent of Congress (all of which drives liberals crazy, and is high on Obama’s “change” list). In the term ending last June, the conservative wing of the Court (and I include Justice Anthony Kennedy in that wing) was in the majority more than 80 percent of the time. And in the big, important cases, the Court more often than not puts the brakes on overzealous and unconstitutional endeavors of legislators, protects the individual liberties of Americans against unreasonable intrusions by government, and preserves the separation of powers envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. Not in every case, by any means, and often not as thoroughly as many of us would like, but what it does is a far cry from the abuses of constitutional liberty practiced when William Rehnquist first joined the Court in 1972. That is buttressed by the renewal of federalism and the sovereignty of the states — something that had all but disappeared during the Warren years, but, with the unyielding attention by William Rehnquist, has again become a vibrant issue on many fronts.
In the term ending in June 2007, after Rehnquist died and was replaced by John Roberts, a former Rehnquist clerk and protégé, and after Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O’Connor, the shift to the right became palpable. In that term, the Court upheld, in a 5-4 decision, the federal law banning late-term abortions, gave teachers the ability to control unruly students, abolished the use of affirmative action programs in high schools, and began the assault on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. That assault was concluded in January of this year when the Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, emasculating the law even further in what may be the most far-reaching case decided in the past several years. Another example, of course, is the 5-4 decision in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down the District of Columbia’s gun ban and, for the first time, found that the Second Amendment pertains to individual gun ownership — a ruling inconceivable to Court watchers of even a decade ago. As liberal justice Stephen Breyer wrote in June 2008, “It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much.”
In her Scalia biography, Biskupic concludes that Scalia has changed the terms of debate not only at the court, but also in law schools and in professional legal analyses. As a profile of Scalia in Time magazine put it, Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, may be the most important justice, but “Scalia is the most influential. He has made respectable a mode of conservative constitutional interpretation — ‘originalism’ — that would likely be moribund without him.”
But it is also fair to say that if Scalia is the most influential member of the Court, Rehnquist was the architect of the swing to the right, and fair to say that today’s conservative justices are the builders. If Scalia has changed the terms of debate, he would have had a more difficult time doing so without the groundwork that was laid by William Rehnquist.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online