ACLU Expresses Condolences on Passing of Chief Justice Rehnquist; Says Legacy of Independent Role of the Court Must Be Upheld

September 4, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today expressed its condolences to the family and friends of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who passed away last night. Chief Justice Rehnquist served on the Supreme Court for 33 years, and his death now creates two vacancies on the nation’s highest court.

William Rehnquist

John Roberts

ACLU letter to the Senate on the nomination of John Roberts >>

ACLU report on John Roberts’ record >>

“We express our sincere condolences to Chief Justice Rehnquist’s family and friends,” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. “Though we disagreed with the chief justice on many issues, he will be remembered for his long service to the court and his profound impact on American constitutional law.”

Rehnquist was nominated to the court in 1972 by Richard Nixon and elevated to chief justice in 1986 by Ronald Reagan. As chief justice, he led an activist court that struck down more federal laws than any court since before the New Deal, often on the grounds that Congress had exceeded its powers by enacting comprehensive civil rights legislation.

In recent years, however, a majority of the court moved to a more moderate position on this and other issues.

“While the current court is undoubtedly more conservative than the court he joined, Rehnquist was ultimately unable to persuade a majority of his colleagues to overrule Roe v. Wade, reject affirmative action, or permit the official government endorsement of religion,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s National Legal Director.

Inevitably, in his long career, there were certain notable exceptions to Rehnquist’s conservative record. For example, his decision in Dickerson v. United States (2000) reaffirmed the core holding of Miranda. And, he voted against the Bush administration’s claim in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004), that American citizens could be detained indefinitely without charges, trial or access to counsel as part of the war against terrorism.

Finally, Chief Justice Rehnquist will forever be remembered for his unique role in presidential history, first in presiding over the Senate impeachment trial of President William J. Clinton, and then in joining a 5-4 majority of the court to end the Florida recount and effectively award the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

“With the passing of the chief justice and the resignation of Justice O’Connor, the nation is faced with two vacancies to fill on a closely divided Supreme Court,” added Romero. “We call on the president to choose a replacement for Chief Justice Rehnquist who will protect civil liberties and preserve the court’s constitutional role in our system of checks and balances.”

In addition to its consideration of John Roberts, the nominee to replace retiring Justice O’Connor, the ACLU national board will review the civil liberties record of the nominee to succeed Chief Justice Rehnquist, and will decide, based on that review, whether to oppose them. The ACLU has only opposed two nominees in its 85-year history: the 1972 nomination of Rehnquist to be associate justice and the 1987 nomination of Robert Bork.

“The Senate is now faced with the daunting task of conducting at least two confirmation hearings,” added Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The outcome of these hearings could shape the Supreme Court for another generation. It is absolutely essential for the Senate to exercise its role of ‘advise and consent’ by carefully reviewing the record of every Supreme Court nominee, including John Roberts and whomever is chosen to succeed the chief justice.”

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