Chief justice will be remembered for efficiency, humor, impartiality
His final opinion upheld a display of the Ten Commandments in Texas.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a one-time maverick who built a precarious conservative majority on cases touching everything from schools to the presidency, fought his final struggle away from the public square.
Ravaged by thyroid cancer disclosed nearly a year ago, Rehnquist labored over months of declining health to stay at his job, gaunt yet stoic as the disease progressed. He died Saturday night at age 80, surrounded by his grown children in his Virginia home.
Rehnquist's last opinion, in June, upheld a Ten Commandments display in Texas, a fitting finale in a career that tested boundaries between church and state, favored a shift in powers from Washington to states and involved two extraordinary interventions in the executive branch -- the impeachment trial of President Clinton and settlement of the 2000 election in President Bush's favor.
Presiding over a divided court in divisive times, Rehnquist nevertheless was credited with "efficiency, good humor and absolute impartiality," in the words of liberal Justice John Paul Stevens a few years ago, echoed by many others now.
Rehnquist was curt yet collegial, caustically reining in long-winded lawyers one moment, showing a warmer side the next, punctuated by a throaty laugh heard mostly in private. He was a passionate student of legal history who turned a poker face to the court, with an occasional arch of the eyebrows through large glasses.
Refusing to quit
In a poignant twist in Bush's inauguration in January, Rehnquist smiled wanly as he came out of the seclusion forced by his cancer and administered the oath of office for his fifth and final time.
Announcing his death, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said: "The chief justice battled thyroid cancer since being diagnosed last October and continued to perform his duties on the court until a precipitous decline in his health the last couple of days."
Rehnquist passed up a chance to retire in the summer, saying he wanted to stay on the bench as long as his health would allow. He went through radiation and chemotherapy treatments and had a trachea tube inserted to help him breathe.
His death opens a rare second vacancy on a court already in flux, with Bush nominee John Roberts about to begin Senate confirmation hearings to replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Rehnquist helped start and then led the high court's drift from its liberal moorings of the 1960s. Once dubbed the Lone Ranger because of his solo dissents, he found more company and influence over the years, thanks to succeeding appointments of conservative justices and his elevation by President Reagan to chief justice in 1986.
The "Rehnquist five" on the court of nine voted together to strike down federal laws intended to protect female victims of violent crime and keep guns away from schools, resolving that those issues were better dealt with at the local level.
They held together in the 5-4 decision that essentially handed the inconclusive 2000 election to Bush over Democrat Al Gore. Although insulated from politics, Rehnquist did not ignore political sensitivities entirely. After the Bush vs. Gore decision that critics said would tarnish the court's reputation for objectivity, he cited opinion polls indicating people held the court in no less regard.
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