The Senate voted Wednesday evening to confirm William H. Rehnquist as the 16th chief justice of the United States, ending a prolonged and partisan fight over President Reagan's choice to head the Supreme Court.
"They have left no stone unthrown," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Rehnquist's staunchest defender, who complained that the "distortions and misrepresentations" voiced against the 62-year-old justice amounted to a "Rehnquisition."
The chamber was expected to follow the Rehnquist confirmation late Wednesday by approving Circuit Judge Antonin Scalia, 50, as a high court justice. He would be the nation's first Italian-American on the Supreme Court.
Voting Balance Not Affected
The Senate's action will not immediately change the voting balance on the high court because Scalia, in effect, would replace retiring Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, also a conservative. But the change clearly strengthens the court's right wing because both Rehnquist and Scalia are not only forceful and reliable conservatives but relatively young by Supreme Court standards.
But Rehnquist also moves into the chief justice seat under something of a cloud. During the long confirmation debate, both his backers and critics said that his keen intellect and judicial experience qualified him to head the high court.
However, a series of charges--particularly that he is hostile to blacks and women and that he failed to be candid at his Senate hearings--had eroded his support. The 33 "no" votes cast Wednesday were the most negative votes for any confirmed justice in U.S. history.
In 1971, Rehnquist also survived a fierce attack during his confirmation proceedings to be an associate justice. After being nominated by President Richard M. Nixon, he was confirmed by the Senate on a 68-26 vote.
With Republicans now in control of the Senate, his supporters thought that this confirmation would be easier. The early predictions were that only 20, or perhaps as many 25, senators would vote against Rehnquist.
Instead, however, the attacks on his record this time were more fierce and more sustained than in 1971, and they clearly took their toll. In recent days, several senators announced on the floor of the chamber that they had decided to vote against him.
Mathias Casts 'No' Vote
Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), the second ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that he would vote against Rehnquist because of recently revealed memos from 1970 in which Rehnquist, then a top attorney in the Nixon Administration's Department of Justice, proposed a plan to halt school desegregation and denounced the equal rights amendment.
Mathias, who had voted for Rehnquist in the Judiciary Committee, also said that he was bothered because the justice in 1972 cast the deciding vote to end a suit challenging the Army's spying on civilians. Most legal scholars have contended that Rehnquist helped formulate the Army's plan while at the Justice Department and therefore should have taken no part in the case. Rehnquist in 1972 denied that he had played any direct role in the spying program.
Just hours before the vote, Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) said he would vote against Rehnquist because of his "lack of credibility and reliability." Exon, a moderate, praised the justice's "high intellect" and his "pro-life position" on the court. Rehnquist has regularly dissented from the court's decisions granting women a right to an abortion.
"I had intended to vote for Justice Rehnquist last night and again this morning," Exon said. However, after listening to the debate and having "second thoughts . . . I have come to the conclusion that the proper vote is 'no'," he said.
Rehnquist's supporters, however, contended that most of the criticism stemmed from his conservative philosophy. "He has proven in his almost 15 years on the court to be a brilliant legal thinker and writer," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.). "He has brought dignity to the court and earned the respect of his colleagues."
'Hostility to Rights'
The most effective attack against the nomination came from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a Washington coalition representing 185 organizations, which charged two weeks ago that Rehnquist had demonstrated "a 35-year hostility to civil rights." As a law clerk in 1952, he wrote a memo that the "separate but equal" doctrine of racial segregation was "right," although he told the committee hearing that the memo did not represent his personal view.
As a private attorney in Phoenix, Rehnquist had opposed measures to desegregate public housing and the schools and has been accused of aiding Republican efforts to challenge black and Latino voters.
For his part, Rehnquist said that he should be judged on whether he has "fairly construed the Constitution." An advocate of "judicial restraint," Rehnquist has said that he believes the Constitution requires that most policy decisions, such as whether women have a right to an abortion or whether private homosexual activity can be limited, should be made by elected officials, not by an unelected Supreme Court.
Defender of Police
Rehnquist also has voted consistently in favor of police and against criminal defendants, contending that the 14th Amendment's requirement of "due process of law" has been stretched too far to aid criminal suspects.