Rehnquist a Model of Efficiency for Supreme Court

Published June 02, 2005

| Associated Press

William Rehnquist (search) is a man of simple pleasures. He enjoys playing poker, a rare cheeseburger washed down with a beer, a good book, a movie. And he loves competition, from charades to tennis to trivia.

Perhaps most of all, the 80-year-old chief justice is a creature of habit. That trait has helped him make the Supreme Court a model of legal efficiency, where strict deadlines are set and enforced.

If he retires in the coming weeks — as many expect — Rehnquist will be remembered around the court as a super-organized manager who kept harmony among his colleagues, no matter how polarizing the issue they were deliberating.

He also led the archaic institution into the computer age, although he's never embraced high-tech gizmos.

For all of his 33 years at the court Rehnquist has worked pretty much the same hours — in about 9 a.m. and gone by 4 p.m. while his clerks work into the night to meet his deadlines. The only significant deviation came after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer last fall, when Rehnquist worked mainly from home for several months.

"He's very personable, and he gets down to business. He doesn't waste anybody's time," said Jim Duff, Rehnquist's chief administrator from 1996-2000.

"His likability has a lot to do with his success as an administrator. There's something of an old shoe quality, a low-key quality about Rehnquist," said A. E. Dick Howard, an expert on the high court at the University of Virginia.

As chief justice, Rehnquist oversees the day-to-day operation of the Supreme Court, from handling routine personnel matters to hosting the Christmas party to dealing with substantive matters such as running meetings in which the justices decide which appeals they will hear.

One of his powers is assigning opinions, when he is in the majority, and he can keep the best cases for himself.

Liberal and conservative court members have praised Rehnquist's efficiency and fairness. Only Justice Antonin Scalia (search) has publicly objected to Rehnquist's rules: strict punctuality for meetings and time limits on discussions about cases. Scalia has said there's not enough opportunity for give-and-take in closed-door meetings. Rehnquist likes that done by memos, and justices refer to the "Rehnquist stare" bestowed on anyone who talks too long.

Rehnquist first came to the court as a law clerk in 1952. At 27, he had spent three years in the Army Air Forces as a weather observer during World War II and had degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Twenty years later he was back: an associate justice picked by President Nixon.

The chief justice then was Warren Burger (search). Rehnquist privately joked about the large cushion Burger sat on during court sessions that made him appear higher than the other eight justices.

Even away from court Burger "came across as a person of grandeur and importance," said Indiana University law professor Joseph Hoffmann, who clerked for Rehnquist in 1985.

Rehnquist, on the other hand, dresses like an absent-minded professor and rarely is recognized when he ventures out. "If you saw him on the street, you'd expect him to be the kind of a guy coming out of a bowling alley or a corner pub, not one of the most powerful people in America," Hoffmann said.

In his book, "The Supreme Court," Rehnquist said he looks for clerks "who seem to have a sense of humor, and who do not give the impression of being too sold upon themselves."

He has three clerks each year, while most justices have four, so there will be an even number for doubles tennis games. Clerks routinely are subjected to impromptu charade matches and competitive trivia quizzes.

Rehnquist, elevated to chief justice by Ronald Reagan in 1986, would take almost a gleeful approach to competitions. An annual tradition was betting on how much snow would fall on the court plaza. Rehnquist and his clerks would take a measuring stick outside to find out the winner.

"He likes the sport of it. He likes the competition," said David Leitch, a 1986 Rehnquist clerk who was White House deputy counsel until recently joining Ford Motor Co. as general counsel.

Rehnquist is a genial taskmaster with his colleagues. Justices slow in their opinion-writing get a phone call from the chief justice, who politely encourages them to speed up.

His illness has not slowed his pace -- he remains one of the fastest writers of decisions. It took him just a month to pen Tuesday's 9-0 ruling throwing out the conviction of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm for destroying Enron Corp. (search)-related documents.

One of his administrative accomplishments has been reducing the court's workload. Justices review about 80 cases a year -- half the number they dealt with when Rehnquist became chief. Supporters say the change has led to better, well-thought out rulings. Critics contend the court ignores wrongly decided cases from lower courts and doesn't work hard enough.

Despite disagreements on issues like abortion and the death penalty, Rehnquist has warm relationships with colleagues, checking in on them when they are ill and maintaining a collegial atmosphere at the justices' regular meetings. His monthly poker game has included Scalia.

"The court has to move on to the next issue. And it helps if there is a sustained professional respect among the justices," said Brett McGurk, a Washington attorney and Rehnquist clerk in 2001.

In court, Rehnquist can be imposing. He sharply cuts off any lawyer who goes over the time limit. His questions are pointed and if he disagrees with the response he will deliver a verbal slap more potent than any other justice.

Curiously, he has decorated his robe with four gold stripes on each sleeve, a flare inspired by a costume in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. He's the only court member in modern history to wear anything other than a plain black robe, and it is the only thing showy about him.

The chief justice works out of a suite of offices at the back of the court building. When he became chief justice, he gave up a large office with a beautiful view of the Capitol to move to the suite traditionally occupied by the chief justice.

"I have never thought that just because one held an important position it was necessary to have an office the size of the one Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had," Rehnquist wrote in his book.

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