TUCSON - The late William Rehnquist was one of the two or three most significant Supreme Court chief justices in history, current Chief Justice John Roberts said Wednesday.
In a lecture at the University of Arizona's law school, Roberts said Rehnquist was responsible for a "seismic shift" away from political science and public policy "to the more solid grounds of legal arguments" in case presentations before the court.
When Rehnquist came onto the court in 1972 at age 47, Roberts said, the practice of constitutional law was "more in the realm of political science."
That could be seen in the broader arguments made in the briefs before the Supreme Court in important constitutional cases, he said.
"Over Justice Rehnquist's time on the court, the method of analysis and argument shifted to the more solid grounds of legal arguments — what are the tests of the statutes involved, what precedents control.
"Rehnquist, a student both of political science and the law, was significantly responsible for that seismic shift."
Whether the shift was a good change can be debated, "but I think there's no disputing that such a shift did occur during the time that Justice Rehnquist was on the court," Roberts said.
He said when Rehnquist joined the court, a minority of justices had been former federal judges.
"Today, for the first time in its history, every member of the court was a federal court of appeals judge before joining the court — a more legal perspective and less of a policy perspective," Roberts said.
During Rehnquist's early years on the court, he often was the lone dissenter — so much so that "his law clerks bought him a Lone Ranger doll that stayed on his mantelpiece 'till the end of his tenure on the court," Roberts said, long after his lone dissents had become accepted as law by a court majority.
Rehnquist was elevated to chief justice in 1986 and "earned the respect of his colleagues by the fairness and efficiency he displayed," Roberts said.
He noted Rehnquist's unconventional ways, from favoring Hush Puppy shoes and long sideburns to missing one presidential State of the Union address because "it conflicted with the watercolor class he was taking at the local YMCA.
"Rehnquist explained that he had paid $25 to sign up for the class and he wasn't going to miss one of the sessions," he said.
Roberts said that during Rehnquist's 33-year tenure on the Supreme Court, he argued 39 cases with him. "Each of those arguments was a lesson, sometimes a hard one in lawyering," he said.
He said that as an associate justice, Rehnquist taught advocates the importance of preparation, "focused on a rigorous understanding of the content of the controlling law."
Roberts cited two favorite questions Rehnquist would pose to lawyers:
"'You say that's what Congress meant. What did Congress say?'"
And, "'Which of our cases support that proposition?'"
Roberts said Rehnquist had a knack for getting to the heart of an issue quickly and efficiently, and was known for the brevity of his opinions and his love of adding historical perspective, frequently referring to little-known events.
He enjoyed wagers and delighted in charades, croquet and board games, Roberts added.
Roberts was named to the high court in September 2005 to succeed Rehnquist. He gave the college's third annual Rehnquist Center Lecture.
The nonpartisan Rehnquist Center on the Constitutional Structures of Government was established at the college in 2006, and the lecture series honors the late chief justice.
In a question-and-answer session, Roberts said the increasingly politicized nature of the Senate judicial confirmation process is troubling.
"I think we need to have a broader recognition that we are not part of the political process, that we are not representatives of either an administration or a confirming Senate on the court," he said.
He also said having justices come to the court with trial experience would be a good thing. Most have primarily an academic background, he noted.
"The one gaping hole in the background of legal experience is trial experience, the trial judge," he said.
He added that Rehnquist was a hands-on trial lawyer for his entire career as a private practitioner and missed that so much that as chief justice he once appointed himself to sit as a trial judge in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Rehnquist rendered an opinion "and was promptly reversed by the 4th Circuit" Court of Appeals, Roberts said.