Adam Cohen: Review of "The Partisan: The Life of William Rehnquist"

Roundup: Books

When Jimmy Lee Gray was sent to the Mississippi gas chamber in 1983 the procedure went horribly wrong. He gasped for breath and convulsed wildly, slamming his head against a metal pole hard enough to shake the room. The episode caused widespread revulsion, and Mississippi eventually switched from gas to lethal injection.

Weeks after the botched execution, Justice William Rehnquist lamented the Gray case in a speech at the University of Arkansas. Rehnquist was not troubled by the gruesomeness. He was disturbed by the number of times the condemned man had been allowed to challenge his sentence in federal and state court.

This focus on speeding the machinery of death, and unconcern about how it functioned, was fully in character. Rehnquist — who served on the Supreme Court 33 years, 19 as chief justice — was a man on an ideological mission. Richard Nixon had handpicked him to do battle against the framework of rights that liberal judges had created in the 1960s. In a phone call congratulating him on being confirmed by a skeptical Senate, Nixon had offered a grim benediction: “Just be as mean and rough as they said you were.”

Rehnquist’s struggle to reshape American law in his and Nixon’s image is the central story line of John A. Jenkins’s engaging and perceptive biography, “The Partisan.” On a court in which justices often evolve away from the views they arrived with, Rehnquist was for years a conservative North Star. In the end, however, he never achieved his legal counterrevolution, because of a combination of being too fixed in his beliefs and, ultimately, not fixed enough....

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