Professors, former clerks remember friend, mentor

IU: Former Rehnquist clerks reflect on legacy

Professor Craig Bradley called fellow law professor Joseph Hoffmann Saturday evening with bad news.

Their former employer had died after a long battle with thyroid cancer. They had lost their friend and mentor. The nation had lost the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

News of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist's death late Saturday left the nation wondering who will fill his position as head of the highest court in the land and how the nation -- and Court -- would change with such an influential decision maker gone.

But for Bradley and Hoffmann, both IU law professors and former clerks for Rehnquist, the justice's death is first and foremost a personal loss.

Hoffmann described Rehnquist's passing as "a blow." He said upon hearing the news he sat and quietly reflected on his mentor's life.

"He is somebody who meant a lot to me and was a big part of my life," he said. "Even today it doesn't quite feel real."

Hoffmann spent 1985 to 1986 as a law clerk for Rehnquist. It was during the spring of 1986 that President Ronald Reagan tapped Rehnquist to replace Chief Justice Warren Burger as head of the court. Since Hoffmann's new faculty position at IU didn't begin until August of that year, he was able to help Rehnquist prepare for the ensuing congressional battle over his confirmation.

Later, in September 1986, when Hoffmann had assumed his position as law professor, Rehnquist made the first of his two visits to Bloomington. Bradley, who clerked with the judge between 1975 and 1976, had asked Rehnquist to speak at the opening of the renovated IU School of Law.

But the justice's visit was marred by protestors, angry at Rehnquist for allegations of civil rights abuses which surfaced during his on-going confirmation hearings for the chief justice position, according to a 1986 article in the Indiana Daily Student.

Protestors booed and heckled the embattled chief justice nominee. According to the article, before the speech then-Associate Dean of Students Richard McKaig took several anti-Rehnquist signs away from protestors outside the IU Auditorium. More than once then-IU President John Ryan stepped in and asked the 150-some protestors to leave.

The interruptions became so intense that Rehnquist did not even finish his speech. Ryan and other IU administrators criticized the behavior of the students, but Hoffmann said Rehnquist did not take his ill-reception personally and realized it was just part of being in politics.

In fact, Rehnquist had good things to say about IU, Hoffmann recalled.

"I remember him saying to me, 'You know, I've visited a lot of law schools, but one thing about your law school is that the faculty actually seem to like each other,'" he said.

Rehnquist returned to IU in the early 1990s to preside over a mock trial at the law school, Hoffmann said. Due to health concerns, Rehnquist canceled a third trip to IU last year when he was asked to attend a conference on a book edited by Bradley regarding the chief justice's legal legacy.

Hoffmann most fondly remembers that conversation during the car ride with Rehnquist out of Bloomington following the protested address and also little things like playing tennis with his former boss.

Rehnquist, for example, liked to pass notes around to his clerks and the other justices while he was sitting on the bench -- sometimes even when lawyers were arguing their cases.

"He loved to bet on how much snow had fallen in the past 24 hours," Hoffmann said. "It was things like that."

For his part, Bradley appreciated that Rehnquist -- like most lawyers -- loved to argue and didn't mind when people disagreed with him. The last time Bradley had a personal conversation with Rehnquist was about a year ago, when the two discussed Bradley's academic research on the Fourth Amendment at Rehnquist's chambers in Washington.

"I told him that he had only voted for a criminal defendant once in 33 years on the bench in a non-unanimous Fourth Amendment case," he said, adding he wouldn't disclose how Rehnquist responded.

As close as Hoffmann and Bradley were to the chief justice, they recognize his legacy on the Court might not be universally seen as positive.

Bradley said Rehnquist joined the Supreme Court as a lone conservative but ended his career with a five-justice conservative majority that acquired a reputation for enforcing federalism and striking down laws they felt were over-reaching.

"I think that the more conservative turn that the Court took under Rehnquist's leadership reflected the turn that politics in the country took," he said. "He was certainly a leader of that movement"

Like what you're reading? Support independent, award-winning college journalism on this site. Donate here.

Comments powered by Disqus