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Debbie O'Leary
IU School of Law-Bloomington

Last modified: Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Rehnquist’s legacy examined in first ‘legal biography’ of a Supreme Court justice

Jan. 24, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- His own party dominated the Supreme Court during his entire 33-year tenure (1972-2005) on the bench.

"The Rehnquist Legacy" is the first legal biography about a Supreme Court justice.

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Yet as chief justice of the United States, the late William H. Rehnquist found himself on the losing side of cases striking down homosexual sodomy laws, upholding the right to abortion, finding affirmative action constitutional, disallowing school prayer and placing limits on the death penalty.

Some conservatives might feel the Rehnquist "legacy" is one of a failure to lead his fellow Republicans, but such a belief "misunderstands the nature of the Supreme Court in general, and of the current court in particular," writes Indiana University Bloomington law professor Craig Bradley in the introduction to The Rehnquist Legacy.

The newly-released book from Cambridge University Press is the first legal biography about a Supreme Court justice; that is, it is a biography devoted entirely to assessing a justice's impact on the nation's highest court and the development of constitutional law. It is also the first book published about Rehnquist since his death in September.

Bradley is the editor of the book and one of 20 contributing authors who seek to assess Rehnquist's impact on the diverse areas of constitutional law, including freedom of speech and religion, criminal procedure, governmental structure and liberty interests. Six of the contributing authors have clerked for Supreme Court justices, including Bradley, who clerked for Rehnquist from 1975-76 and testified at his confirmation hearing for chief justice.

The book's list of contributing authors includes New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse. It also features such distinguished legal scholars as Yale Kamisar of the University of Michigan, who is one of the foremost authorities on criminal procedure, and former Supreme Court clerks Dan Farber of the University of California at Berkeley, Geoffrey R. Stone of the University of Chicago and Mark Tushnet of Georgetown University. Farber, Stone and Tushnet served as law clerks for Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens, William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, respectively.

The former Rehnquist clerks who have written for the book are: Bradley, fellow Indiana Law professor Joseph L. Hoffmann and Richard W. Garnett of Notre Dame University.

In addressing criticisms of Rehnquist's ability to sway his fellow justices to his side of issues, Bradley, the James Louis Calamaras Professor in the IU School of Law-Bloomington, notes that a "chief justice has little formal power over his fellow justices. He may be primos inter pares (first among equals), but the emphasis is on the pares. Thus, no chief justice is likely to exert much sway over the votes of his fellows."

No "sweeping generalizations" can be made about Rehnquist's legacy, Bradley said. Rehnquist's impact on constitutional law differs according to how often he was able to attract a majority of votes to his positions. "He was markedly unsuccessful in turning the court to his view in the areas of religion and commercial speech. He was much more successful when it came to limiting the rights of criminal suspects, but failed in the most ambitious aspects of his criminal procedure agenda," Bradley said.

Even his political opponents agreed that Rehnquist was a strong administrator and ran a smoothly functioning court, Bradley said. Bradley credits Rehnquist's agreeable personality, his fairness in assigning opinions and his desire to run disciplined oral arguments as the reasons for his success. At the conference where the court meets to discuss recently heard cases, Rehnquist "ran a tight ship, giving each justice a chance to state his views, in order of seniority," Bradley writes. "He did not allow debate among the justices, being of the opinion that, since most had already made up their minds, extended discussion was a waste of time."

Rehnquist's legacy will surely be debated in the years to come. Bradley considers The Rehnquist Legacy, which analyzes the most significant parts of Rehnquist's ambitious agenda and how well he succeeded in meeting his goals, to be a strong starting point. To view Bradley and Linda Greenhouse speaking at an April 2005 IU Bloomington conference on Rehnquist's legacy, go to

Reporters interested in speaking to Craig Bradley or obtaining a review copy of the book should contact Ryan Piurek, IU Media Relations, 812-855-5393 or, or Debbie O'Leary, IU School of Law-Bloomington, 812-855-2426 or