Stern in court but likeable in person

United States Supreme Court Chief Justice William H Rehnquist died late on Saturday outside Washington after battling advanced thyroid cancer for more than 10 months.

He served more than 33 years on the court, including nearly 19 years as the 16th chief justice in the court’s 216-year history.

During his tenure on the court, Rehnquist presided over the 1999 Senate trial of former president Bill Clinton, who had been impeached by the House.

He voted with the 5-4 majority in December 2000 to end a contested recount in Florida, handing the presidential election to Bush over then-vice president Al Gore.

With the nominee to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor not yet confirmed by the US Senate, the court now has two openings for the first time since 1971. Rehnquist was appointed to one of those seats.

He was the only remaining justice to have heard the 1973 Roe vs Wade abortion case, which gave women a constitutional right to end a pregnancy in the first several months. Rehnquist, a conservative who believed that state governments under the Constitution had wide powers free from federal interference, voted against the majority in that case.

The son of Swedish immigrants, Rehnquist was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 1 1924. He and his wife, who died in 1991, had three children and eight grandchildren.

He served in the he served in the US Army air forces during World War II.

Rehnquist earned bachelors and master’s degrees from Stanford University in California and planned to teach philosophy before deciding on a legal career and graduating first in his law-school class at Stanford. He also earned a master’s degree from Harvard University.

He served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. One of Rehnquist’s clerk’s on the high court, now Judge John Roberts, has been nominated to replace O’Connor.

Rehnquist practised law in Phoenix, Arizona from 1953 to 1969. He served as assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel under then-president Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1971.

Nixon nominated Rehnquist to the Supreme Court, and he took his seat as an associate justice on January 7 1972.

Then-president Ronald Reagan nominated him to be chief justice, and after Senate confirmation he took office on September 26 1986.

Tall and dour-faced, Rehnquist projected a stern image and kept strict control over lawyers arguing appeals before the Supreme Court.

In contrast, he was widely described as friendly and likeable in person with good relationships with court colleagues, regardless of legal or political disagreements. Supreme Court scholars widely describe the Rehnquist court as efficient and well-managed, largely thanks to an amicable atmosphere credited to the chief justice.

Rehnquist was a great fan of musical theatre, and close acquaintances often described his dry sense of humour. Despite his insistence on court decorum, as chief justice he had four gold stripes sewn on each shoulder of his black robe, reportedly inspired by the costumes in an adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta HMS Pinafore.

At his death, Rehnquist had the fourth-longest tenure as chief justice. Only a handful of his predecessors — associate or chief justices — ever served longer on the court, and his combined tenure would have been the longest ever in about three years. — Sapa-DPA

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