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Former Rehnquist Clerks Recall His Wit, Warmth

Times Staff Writer

In the years ahead, legal scholars will pore over the career of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and analyze the importance of the Rehnquist court. But this week, about 100 of his former clerks were fondly remembering the man who gave them their first big legal jobs in Washington.

Though Rehnquist served on the country’s highest court for 33 years -- and held its highest position for 19 -- he was casual and down-to-earth, witty and quick to laugh, old-fashioned in his tastes and a fan of trivia. Sports, politics, weather and geography were among his favorite topics.

Many of these former clerks are graying now, and they include numerous prominent lawyers. On Tuesday morning, they formed a double line on the court steps as the chief justice’s casket was carried into the Great Hall of the Supreme Court.

Seven of the eight pallbearers were former clerks. Among them was Judge John G. Roberts Jr., who has been tapped by President Bush to succeed Rehnquist as the next chief justice of the United States.

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Washington lawyer Maureen Mahoney, an Indiana native, was a Rehnquist clerk in 1979, the year before Roberts, another Indiana native, had the same job.

“Those are big shoes to fill, but they won’t be Hush Puppies,” Mahoney said Tuesday, a reference to Rehnquist’s habit of padding around the Supreme Court building in old Hush Puppies. “He was wonderful to work for. He put everyone at ease. He was so unpretentious, and he could talk about practically any subject.”

Mahoney and other clerks recalled their surprise upon meeting him. Rather than ask about their law schools or legal views, he wanted to know about their hometowns, their parents, their hobbies and interests.

Although most justices have four clerks, he had three -- since it made for a perfect doubles match in tennis. For years, Rehnquist and his clerks played every Thursday morning.

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They weren’t hired because they were great tennis players, of course. “Several times I beaned him with my hopelessly chaotic serves,” recalled Richard Garnett, now a law professor at Notre Dame.

Rehnquist had extraordinary legal ability, but the clerks were just as impressed by his broad knowledge of history, languages, literature and politics. “He knew something about everything, and he knew a lot about most things,” said Charles Cooper, a clerk from the late 1970s who became a key lawyer in the Reagan administration.

In talks with law students, Rehnquist often advised them to live a full life with family, friends and interests. Don’t let your career swallow your life, he would tell them.

He pursued his own hobbies even when they drew unwanted attention. During President Carter’s State of the Union address one year, it was noted that Rehnquist alone was missing from the justices in the House chamber. Rehnquist intended no slight to the president, it was just that the speech occurred on the same night as his painting class at the Arlington County recreation center.

For years, his favorite lunch consisted of a cheeseburger and a beer, usually followed by one cigarette. Only in the last decade did he switch to more healthful fare -- salads and seafood.

He would quote English poets, aphorisms in Latin, the lyrics of college fight songs and church hymns, and sports trivia. He liked to organize small betting pools on the NCAA basketball tournament and college football bowl games.

One cold January day, a photo in the Washington Post showed the chief justice and his clerks standing in deep snow on the court building’s steps as a group of antiabortion protesters passed by. It would be unusual for a justice to appear at such a march.

But Rehnquist was there not to observe, but to measure the depth of the snow. The day before, the justices had bet on how much snow would fall on the nation’s capital.

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Rehnquist typically worked faster than the other justices, and he hated to waste time. He insisted on completing a draft opinion within two weeks so it could be sent around the building for comment. Other justices would take two months to complete an initial draft.

In June of many years, when some of his colleagues were taking too long to finish their work, the chief justice announced that he planned to leave Washington on the last Friday of the month. The mock threat usually worked. During his tenure as leader, the court could be counted on to issue its final opinions in the last week of June.

He had a quick, sometimes biting sense of humor. At a luncheon, an editorial writer asked him in a rather insistent tone whether the court might have been influenced by a column that made a strong argument for deciding a case in a particular way.

“We’re always interested in clear, logical and persuasive reasoning,” he replied, “no matter how unlikely the source.”

Rehnquist wrote four books during his years as chief justice, one of which focused on the Supreme Court. For the others, he had an instinct for choosing topics that would soon be in the news.

His book on the history of impeachments appeared a few years before he was called on to preside over the impeachment trial of President Clinton. His history of civil liberties in wartime was published shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks brought that issue into prominence. When, in the late 1990s, he turned his attention to the disputed presidential election of 1876, the nation might have taken it as a warning of trouble ahead.

His last year was difficult, but the extent of his troubles was hidden from the public.

In October, he was diagnosed with a form of thyroid cancer that is nearly always fatal. Doctors opened a hole in his windpipe to help him breathe, but that meant he could not swallow food or water. He was kept alive with a feeding tube.

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Nonetheless, he administered the oath of office to Bush at his second inauguration in January and returned to the bench soon after. His colleagues said he did not discuss his health and never complained about his condition.

In late spring, Rehnquist looked and sounded stronger. He also made the decision not to retire.

“I stopped to see him, and his spirits were good,” said Cooper, who was planning the annual June reunion of Rehnquist’s clerks at the time. “His mind was quick and alert as ever.”

Most years, Rehnquist liked to help plan the sketches and spoofs that were part of the dinner’s entertainment. The weekend also included a picnic for the families.

But this year, the 80-year-old chief justice was too weak to attend most of the events. The clerks suspected that it was the last time they would see him.

He participated for a time to thank everyone for coming and to watch some of the skits. One featured Roberts dressed as the Rehnquist of the late 1970s, sporting mutton-chop sideburns.

“He just loved skits and spoofs, and no one laughed harder when the spoof was on him,” Cooper said.

On the last Thursday in June, the justices appeared to deliver their final opinions for the term. They had taken turns and had spoken for about an hour when Rehnquist, as the senior member, delivered his one opinion. It was on the 5-4 ruling that upheld as constitutional the Ten Commandments monument erected on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol in Austin.

Rehnquist said, as he had many times before, that the Constitution does not prohibit the government from acknowledging the nation’s religious heritage. He gasped for air as he read.

He then noted, as is customary, that there was a series of concurring and dissenting opinions. As he struggled to read the names of the justices who had set down their views, the courtroom was quiet, as if everyone was straining to hear.

He paused and looked up with a smile. “I didn’t know we had that many people on our court,” he said -- a quip that drew laughter and broke the tension in the room.

A moment later, the gavel sounded, and the last term of the Rehnquist court came to an end.


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