In a pair of unrelated but startlingly parallel o-bitch-uaries by Harvard prof Alan Dershowitz and The Nation editor David Corn, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist is remembered as a racist regressive who history will always associate with the shameful Bush v. Gore case.
Corn sums up Rehnquist’s career:
He rose to prominence as a right-wing attorney who decried the Earl Warren court for being a hotbed of judicial activism (left-wing judicial activism, as he saw it). He then became, as a Supreme Court justice, a judicial activist of the right-wing sort, overturning laws made by Congress (that protected women against domestic violence, banned guns near school property, and prohibited discrimination against disabled workers) and steering the justices into Florida’s vote-counting mess in 2000 (an act that only coincidentally–right?–led to George W. Bush’s presidency)
This from Dershowitz:
My mother always told me that when a person dies, one should not say anything bad about him. My mother was wrong. History requires truth, not puffery or silence, especially about powerful governmental figures. And obituaries are a first draft of history. So here’s the truth about Chief Justice Rehnquist you won’t hear on Fox News or from politicians. Chief Justice William Rehnquist set back liberty, equality, and human rights perhaps more than any American judge of this generation. His rise to power speaks volumes about the current state of American values.
Rehnquist’s judicial philosophy was result-oriented, activist, and authoritarian. He sometimes moderated his views for prudential or pragmatic reasons, but his vote could almost always be predicted based on who the parties were, not what the legal issues happened to be. He generally opposed the rights of gays, women, blacks, aliens, and religious minorities. He was a friend of corporations, polluters, right wing Republicans, religious fundamentalists, homophobes, and other bigots.
Rehnquist served on the Supreme Court for thirty-three years and as chief justice for nineteen. Yet no opinion comes to mind which will be remembered as brilliant, innovative, or memorable. He will be remembered not for the quality of his opinions but rather for the outcomes decided by his votes, especially Bush v. Gore, in which he accepted an Equal Protection claim that was totally inconsistent with his prior views on that clause. He will also be remembered as a Chief Justice who fought for the independence and authority of the judiciary. This is his only positive contribution to an otherwise regressive career.
Corn sums up this way:
“He Lived for The Law”–that’s how AOL headlined the story on Rehnquist’s death. But it’s not that Rehnquist had a blind spot on race. He was an active proponent of discrimination. Yet this fellow–without truly making amends–became chief justice of the highest court of the land. Only in America.
As Rehnquist’s impact on America is considered, it ought not be forgotten–particularly at a time when we see how the poor of New Orleans have been neglected–that Rehnquist was at times all too willing to forget about the rights of those less fortunate than he.
As we are subjected to all the rining graveside orations and remembrances of Rehnquist, let’s try to remember him for who he was, not how the Bush administration will spin him.