This ruling, in U.S. vs. Lopez, marked the first time in nearly 60 years that the high court had invalidated a federal law on the grounds that Congress had exceeded its law-making authority.
Rehnquist had long maintained that the Constitution gives the states a special place in the American system of government, and he wrote a series of opinions that held the states are "sovereign" entities and are shielded from some federal regulation. As one example, the Rehnquist court ruled that state agencies and state universities cannot be sued by their employees who say they are victims of age bias or discrimination based on a disability. In his view, states could not be held liable for violating these federal laws.
Rehnquist failed to win a majority in favor of restoring prayers in the public schools. The most decided setback came in 1992, when two Reagan appointees -- Kennedy and O'Connor -- split with Rehnquist and joined a 5-4 majority to rule it was unconstitutional to have a school-sponsored prayer or invocation at a public school's graduation ceremony (Lee vs. Weisman). With Rehnquist in dissent, the court also struck down a city's Christmastime display of a scene depicting Jesus' birth on the courthouse steps. In 2000, he accused his colleagues of showing "hostility" to religion when they prohibited high school students from leading prayers over the school's public address system at football games.
But the chief justice fared better in winning some public aid for religious schools. In 2001, Rehnquist spoke for the 5-4 majority that upheld Ohio's use of public tuition aid to send children to religious schools in Cleveland.
Rehnquist's support for states' rights came with some exceptions, none more memorable than the Bush vs. Gore ruling that ended the disputed 2000 presidential election.
At issue was whether the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation of state law would prevail. On Dec. 8, its judges ordered a statewide hand recount of the remaining untabulated ballots. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush had a lead of about 500 votes in the Florida tally, and he would win the presidency if that margin were preserved. But a hand tally of paper ballots that were rejected by the tabulating machines might have tipped the lead to the Democratic candidate, Vice President Al Gore.
With the chief justice leading the way, the high court on a 5-4 vote ordered a halt to the recount at midday on Dec. 9. And on Dec. 12, the Supreme Court, in an unsigned opinion, ended the recount by declaring it unconstitutional. The conservative majority could not agree on a clear reason for the ruling. Rehnquist wrote that the state court's interpretation of state election law was "absurd" and could be overturned by the high court on the grounds that it fundamentally revised the law after the election. Scalia and Thomas agreed with this view.
Apparently, Justices Kennedy and O'Connor did not. Without signing their names to the ruling, they offered an opinion saying the count violated the Constitution's guarantee of "equal protection of the laws" because it allowed for disputed ballots to be treated differently in the various counties of Florida.
Four justices issued sharp dissents, saying the court should not have intervened and the recount should have continued.
But Gore conceded the next day, and Rehnquist swore in Bush as president on Jan. 20, 2001.
Historians will undoubtedly compare the Rehnquist court to the Warren court of the 1960s, because the court in both eras reflected the views and the priorities of the chief justice.
Chief Justice Earl Warren put together a unanimous court to rule in the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 that racial segregation was "inherently unequal" and could not stand. The Warren court also led the effort to strengthen the individual rights set out in the Bill of Rights. In particular, criminal defendants won stronger protections of their rights.
In between Warren and Rehnquist came the court of Nixon's Chief Justice Burger. He replaced the liberal Warren in 1969 and served until 1986, when his retirement cleared the way for his friend and colleague Bill Rehnquist to replace him.
But the conservative Burger led a fractured court best-known for liberal rulings. The Swann ruling in 1970 that led to cross-town busing for school desegregation, the Furman decision in 1972 that struck down the death penalty (temporarily) and the Roe vs. Wade ruling all emerged from the Burger court.
The Rehnquist court reflected the conservative principles of its chief justice, just as the Warren court mirrored the liberal idealism of former California Gov. Earl Warren.
The Rehnquist court did not hand down landmark rulings that ranked near those of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, or even the 1970s-era decisions such as Roe vs. Wade or the Bakke decision on affirmative action.