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Rehnquist led with quiet efficiency

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Even liberals may come to regard the late William Rehnquist as one of the best U.S. Supreme Court chief justices of the century. Reasons: His moderation and efficiency, his fairness and good nature helped him get along with ideological opponents.

The late Thurgood Marshall called Rehnquist a great chief justice, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised him effusively and often, despite their philosophical differences.

Above all, Rehnquist’s brilliance lay his quiet administration of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some examples:
  • His organizing skills were unparalleled. He ensured that the Court delivered opinions quickly and that oral arguments ran on time.

  • He insisted on punctuality. Rehnquist punished justices who fell behind in writing their opinions by not assigning them new ones, effectively taking them out of the game.

    He also kept the justices’ twice-weekly meetings under rigid control, whisking around the table for comments and refusing to let discussion wander.

    Rehnquist’s discipline looked particularly good when Justice John Paul Stevens, who stepped in while Rehnquist was recuperating from cancer, let one advocate have extra time and then had to give equal time to another.

  • He’s methodical.  When he assigned himself to write an opinion, he set a 10-day deadline for the first draft and started asking his clerks questions about it within a week.

  • He got along with people, despite leading a group of intense personalities. In his own words, this came from his “very high boiling point” and the ability to compromise.

  • He showed sensitivity. “He [was] very concerned about hurt feelings among the justices,” recalls a clerk, “and [was] very careful of the way that certain memos or interactions would make other justices react or feel.”

    He avoided lashing out and smoothed things over when others did.
— Adapted from “Rehnquist the Great?” Jeffrey Rosen, The Atlantic Monthly.

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