Late last night Chief Justice William Rehnquist succumbed to the thyroid cancer that he had bravely battled during the last months of his life. No sight was more impressive than that of this gravely ill and courageous man who had served his country for most of his 80 years rising from his sickbed and painfully maneuvering his body, a body ravaged and thinned to gauntness by the disease that killed him yesterday, to the court and the job that he loved. Even as his end drew near, Rehnquist refused to resign from the bench, refused to mitigate his courtesy and good humor, refused to give up. There was no comfortable retirement for Rehnquist, no easy fading from the national scene.

During his 33 years on the Supreme Court, 19 of them as chief justice, Rehnquist set a sterling example of  high intelligence, civility, efficiency, wry wit, and above all, respect for the law. His law clerks (one of whom is Supreme Court nominee John Roberts) adored him, and even liberals liked and admired him (an example is the New Republic’s legal affairs analyst Jeffrey Rosen, who wrote an article titled “Rehnquist the Great?” for the Atlantic last year–hat tip to Michelle Malkin).

Our good friend Charmaine Yoest adds this brief obituary:

“I would add that among his most important acts in a long life of public service is the fact that he authored a dissent from the majority decision in Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal:

    ‘To reach its result, the Court necessarily has had to find within the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment a right that was apparently completely unknown to the drafters of the Amendment.’

“Taking that stand, joined only by Justice Byron White, is an honorable legacy.”

As an interpreter of the Constitution, Rehnquist believed that courts should respect what was in the Constitution and not try to invent constitutional rights just because they seemed like a good idea. As one of only two dissenters to Roe vs. Wade (White was the other), Rehnquist pointed out that a constitutional right to abortion was simply not to be found in the language of the document, and that the Supreme Court had no business overriding the abortion laws of 50 state legislatures. He was a supreme believer in democracy, and he held that judges should not interfere in the democratic process without a clear constitutional warrant. Had the rest of the Supreme Court agreed with him, the question of of liberalizing abortion access would have been played out in the state legislatures and would not have become the bitterly divisive issue that it is today. 

Right now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we are facing one of the most severe tests of our democracy–and the civic peace and civility that democracy is supposed to foster–in the history of our nation. The already nasty confirmation battle over Roberts, a man of sterling qualifications, temperament, and judicial record, now promises to escalate to frightening proportions, and I dread what the battle will be like over the next Roberts. The worst are full of passionate intensity these days, and it is going to be gruesome. We must hope and pray and trust in the strength and resilience of our country that has weathered so much. We must never give up. In this, we must follow the example of William Rehnquist, whom we miss and mourn over so deeply.