Monday, November 28, 2005

Chief Justice Rehnquist's questionable Past

Original Chimes Article Here

Building on Brian Bork’s article from last week’s Chimes, I would like to further highlight incidents from Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s career that I feel to be cause for alarm.

As noted in Bork’s article, William Rehnquist was involved in ballot security operations, attempting to use old Jim Crow laws to prevent minorities from voting. What was not mentioned in Bork’s article was that Rehnquist actually volunteered for this assignment. And according to Christopher Henry’s The Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, Rehnquist served with more vigor and enthusiasm than his co-workers. During Rehnquist’s confirmation hearings, several people even claimed to have seen him involved in shoving matches with minorities he had barred from voting.

In 1964, while working on the Goldwater campaign, Rehnquist lobbied to defeat an ordinance that would require restaurants and hotels to serve all persons regardless of race. He was the only person at the Phoenix city council to speak against the measure on June 15, and when it passed unanimously the next day, he did not give up his fight. As reported in Peter Irons’ Brennan v. Rehnquist, the Chief Justice wrote a letter to the Arizona Republic claiming that only a “small minority” benefit from the public accommodation law. It echoed an argument he would use three years later to protest school integration in Phoenix. Rehnquist then said that the majority of citizens were “well satisfied with the traditional neighborhood school system” and did not want to see it tinkered with by social theorists who asserted “a claim for special privileges” for the black community.

In 1969 Rehnquist delivered a speech entitled “The Law: Under Attack from the New Barbarians.” Rehnquist made known his disgust for Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, and anyone else who sought to commit civil disobedience by breaking the law. Rehnquist (in what must have been a very convenient philosophy for a white man born into privilege) argued that no matter how peaceful the offense, or how noble the cause, breaking the law was unacceptable, and the offender did not redeem him or herself by going to prison. “The deliberate law breaker does not fully atone for his disobedience when he serves his sentence, for he has by example undermined respect for the legal system itself.” Two years later he reiterated this position, adding “that if force or the threat of force is required in order to enforce the law, we must not shrink from its employment” (Irons).

Paradoxically, Rehnquist did not hold the government to the same high standard, defending the detention of criminals without bail, wiretapping without judicial warrant, and police surveillance of dissenters (Irons). (It should be noted that in the 1960s, the word ‘dissenters’ was often defined broadly so as to include civil rights leaders).

When Rehnquist was nominated for the Supreme Court in 1971, it produced an outcry from civil rights leaders, who called the nomination an insult and pointed out that Rehnquist had made a career out of opposing integration. President Nixon, intentionally or not, used a successful strategy to push Rehnquist though. Nixon’s two previous nominees, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, were both rejected in part because of their racist views. Nixon complained bitterly that this was on the grounds that both were Southern constructionists. After this, the Senate was under a lot of pressure to accept Rehnquist (Irons).

Despite Nixon’s efforts, the confirmation hearing still turned out to be a bloody affair. What threatened Rehnquist most was a memo in which he wrote, “I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed.” Rehnquist demonstrated his great concern for the issue by refusing to testify about it when the Senate hearings were reopened, but he did write a letter saying that the views in the memo were not his, but Judge Jackson’s views, for whom he was working for at the time. Judge Jackson could not defend himself since he was dead, and although Jackson’s longtime secretary accused Rehnquist of lying, the truth of the matter will never be known. Another possible motivation for Rehnquist’s position on Brown v. Board of Education could be the shift towards centralization of power it signified. We do know, however, that 1.) Rehnquist has consistently opposed desegregation efforts throughout his life, 2.) Rehnquist urged Judge Jackson to uphold Plessy V. Ferguson on the grounds and the majority of the population was in favor of it. 3.) Judge Jackson voted to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson (Irons).

As a Supreme Court justice, Rehnquist often hides behind a strict constructionist viewpoint as a means to oppose desegregation efforts. However, his rulings have not been entirely consistent in this regard (Irons). For instance, according to Elder Witt’s A Different Justice, Renhquist alone dissented from the 1983 Supreme court decision to disallow Bob Jones University tax-exempt status because it discriminated against blacks. Rehnquist argued that the congress must first authorize the IRS to adopt this policy. However, as reported by Raymond Wolters’ Right Turn, Rehnquist wrote in another case that the “congressional inaction is of virtually no weight in determining legislative intent.”

In another example, Rehnquist used the Board of Education v. Dowell case in 1991 to kill off some six hundred federal desegregation orders. “We think it is a mistake,” Rehnquist wrote, “to treat words such as ‘dual’ and ‘unitary’ as if they were actually found in the constitution.” He further reasoned that as long as local officials attempted desegregation for a short period of time, and further desegregation efforts are beyond the power of the federal government (Irons).

In 1999 Rehnquist also attempted to use the strict constructionist view to deny the Chippewa Indians their ancestral land, arguing that, as reported by Philip Brasher for the Associated Press (03/24/99), “There is simply no principled reason to invalidate [President Taylor’s] 150-year-old executive order.” The point is that Rehnquist has time and time again sought to justify his positions with a rigid constructionist point of view. However, according to Peter Irons’ A People’s History of the Supreme Court, Rehnquist has demonstrated willingness to take a Judicial Activist position if pushed far enough – to stop the desecration of our sacred American Flag. Apparently Rehnquist was more appalled at the notion of burning of a piece of fabric than at the oppression of blacks under segregation.

But let me be perfectly clear: it is not my intention in all of this to call Rehnquist a racist. To view the issue in such absolute terms is entirely reductionist, and lacking of attention to nuance and subtlety. My position then, is merely that Rehnquist’s past racial record is ample reason to warrant concern. Calvin students and faculty should take the opportunity of Commencement to protest these views and the institutional endorsement Rehnquist’s presence at Calvin represents.

[Editor's note: This article was edited by Buma, who added in the last paragraph.  Anyone familiar with Buma's distinctive writing style should recognize the prose as his, and as much better than mine.  Also, I would have been content the implication of racism stand without the softening remarks at the end.]

No comments: