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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

An evening with Chief Justice William Rehnquist

Here's a brief item I wrote for Seven Days newspaper about the chief's speech at the United Church of Christ Fellowship Hall, August 11, 2004. As far as I could tell, he was ABSOLUTELY UNGUARDED (?!?).

I didn't write about this, but when I chased him backstage, I got him to take a picture with me, which I can't yet scan. I also asked him why he put those gold stripes on his robe. "I just wanted to liven things up," he said.


Chief Justice William Rehnquist is a major player in Washington, D.C., but when the spry 79-year-old jurist visits his summer home in Greensboro, he's just a regular guy.

At least, he tries to be. As one of nine Supreme Court Justices who interpret the laws of the land, he wields astonishing power. Appointed to the bench by Richard Nixon in 1971 and elevated to Chief in 1986, Rehnquist is the court's leading conservative. He voted against Roe v. Wade; he would allow states to criminalize homosexual behavior; and he helped put George W. Bush in the White House.

But the Chief didn't come here to talk about current events; he entertained the audience of 200 star-struck Vermonters with the story of the highly controversial election... of 1876. Rehnquist recently penned a book on the subject.

That year, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular election but missed a majority in the Electoral College by a single vote. Congress appointed a panel including five Supreme Court justices to pick the president. The Republican-dominated commission voted 8-7 along party lines for Rutherford B. Hayes. During his 35-minute address, Rehnquist defended the panel members' objectivity in the face of what he called the "largely undeserved opprobrium from a hostile Democratic press."

Not that anyone was really listening. Sure, a few historians were in attendance, but most spectators undoubtedly came to gawk at this legal dinosaur who summers in their midst -- a man who, in 1952, actually wrote a memorandum in support of school segregation.

Though many tuned out his speech -- even the guy who introduced him kept dozing off -- everyone perked up for the brief Q&A. Not surprisingly, Rehnquist avoided tough questions, such as an inquiry about the wisdom of intervening in the 2000 election. "I don't re-canvass decisions that I've participated in," he said with a smile, "and if I did, I wouldn't do it here in this forum." The crowd laughed, perhaps relieved that he had sidestepped controversy.

The most shocking aspect of Rehnquist's appearance was its normality -- if there were bodyguards protecting him, I didn't see them. At the end of the evening, the Chief Justice drove off alone in a green Subaru with Virginia plates, just another tourist.  
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