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Former Rehnquist Clerks Recall His Wit, Warmth

Don't let your career swallow your life, the late chief justice would advise law students. He was known for his way of putting people at ease.

September 07, 2005|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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