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The Rehnquist legacy

"The politics of courts are so mean," wrote Lord Nelson, "that private people would be ashamed to act in the same way."

With the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a visible mean streak has quickly emerged. For almost a year now, columnists, commentators and members of Congress have spoken more about the absence of Justice Rehnquist on the high court than his presence there. He has been regarded as a shadow — by everyone except himself. And now, with his passing from thyroid cancer at age 80, the nation seems content to dash off a few thoughts about the man before pressing on to the "real" question — who comes next?

But Justice Rehnquist deserves better.

Before leaping ahead, Americans might wish to glean a few lessons from the life of a man who gave his best to his country.

Born in Milwaukee in 1924, Rehnquist showed early on the drive and ambition that would carry him to the top court. Yet even as a boy he showed that brilliance could be coupled with personal warmth and humor. His arguments were often tart and even barbed, but he never let philosophical disagreements cloud his sense of humanity. Even in age, his wit never dimmed.

After graduating at the top of his law class from Stanford in 1952, Rehnquist set out to rewrite history. It was a bold quest, but his faith kept the notion from becoming just another quixotic ideal. He eventually changed the course of his country.

He was appointed to the high court by Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and was named chief justice by Ronald Reagan in 1986. Once on the court, Rehnquist threw his all into his work. Even when suffering from cancer he refused to retire and gracefully ease toward the sidelines. He leaned into the tape.

Always the conservative, he nevertheless developed a talent for steering a course for the court that gave it more influence while not creating distractions. His motto as captain of the court was "steady as she goes."

He didn't care for casual attitudes or style. He pushed for punctuality and often chided attorneys for being too "free wheeling." He didn't force his personality on the court. At times he would side with other colleagues in order to maintain a sense of decorum. He was high-minded to the end.

In a Washington Post obituary, law professor Mark Tushnet summed the man up. "When the history of the Supreme Court in the 20th century is written," he said, "there will be two great chief justices: Earl Warren and William Rehnquist."

Today, that seems like a distinct possibility.