Sitting on the high court for 33 years, more than half as chief justice, William Rehnquist might have easily expanded the Supreme Court's influence in society. But he tried to avoid that by upholding the idea that power lies in an individual's ability to remain self-governing, and that local governance is the safest power.
That he was working at the court nearly up to his passing on Saturday is a testament to his notion that individuals serve society more than society serves them.
As much as Americans have increasingly looked to Washington to solve problems, Rehnquist reminded them in his decisions that the basic wisdom of the American Revolution and the Constitution was to set boundaries on central power, and that federal authority especially should not be spread by judicial fiat.
His humility in avoiding an accumulation of power in the court was rare in the nation's capital. Congress and presidents often drift toward more power. The Supreme Court has often followed, using its unchecked authority impatiently to go beyond the Constitution in resolving a bad situation because legislators were too slow or unwilling to tackle it.
Rehnquist himself was not immune to that tendency. In 2000, he led a 5-4 majority of the court in setting aside the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation of that state's own election laws, effectively ending an escalating political train wreck over the Bush-Gore presidential race.
When he joined the court in 1972, after being appointed by President Nixon, Rehnquist was a lone voice in arguing for limits on federal authority over state autonomy. He saw that states can serve a vital national purpose as laboratories for solving social problems, even if the process can take years of democratic ferment.
"There can be no more fundamental constitutional question than that of the intention of the framers of the Constitution as to how authority should be allocated between the national and state governments," he wrote as a junior justice and a lone voice on the bench in the 1970s.
As more such "states rights" advocates were added to the court, his ideas took hold in the 1990s. In 1995, the Rehnquist court upended decades of expanding congressional power by restricting the use of the Constitution's commerce clause, which gives Congress authority to regulate interstate commerce. (A decision overturned a federal law regulating guns near local schools.) His court in general strengthened the role of states by blocking many attempts to impede their authority through federal action.
In addition, Rehnquist rolled back the high court's review of many appeals from state prisoners, focusing the court on truly national issues and helping to reduce the justices' caseload by half.
The legacy of the 16th chief justice of the United States may live on if one of his former law clerks, John Roberts, is approved by the Senate this month as Rehnquist's successor. Roberts's temperament matches his mentor's in treating all his colleagues fairly.
Rehnquist could never muster a consistent majority in his attempt to limit federal power or to avoid judge-made law. But there's no doubt that over time his ideas have gained weight in the court. They are a legacy that is likely to go on without him. •