William H. Rehnquist

William H. Rehnquist's educational journey took him from Stanford University where he earned his bachelor's in political science to Harvard for a master's degree that cemented his conservative legal philosophy before returning to Stanford Law where he graduated first in his class to launch his esteemed legal career.

8 Min Read

William H. Rehnquist had an esteemed educational background that prepared him for his prominent legal career and role as Chief Justice of the United States. Rehnquist attended elite institutions of higher learning including Stanford University for his bachelor’s and law degrees, as well as Harvard University for his master’s degree. His academic journey molded his brilliant legal mind and instilled conservative values that shaped his judicial philosophy over his 33 year Supreme Court tenure.

Quick Facts About William H. Rehnquist

  • Born in 1924 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Served in U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II
  • Law clerk to Justice Robert H. Jackson from 1952-1953
  • Practiced law in Phoenix, Arizona from 1953-1969
  • Appointed by President Nixon as Associate Justice in 1972
  • Became 16th Chief Justice of the U.S. in 1986
  • Served as Chief Justice until his death in 2005

Who Was William H. Rehnquist?

William Hubbs Rehnquist was born on October 1, 1924 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His family moved to Arizona when he was young, where he later attended Stanford University. Rehnquist served in the Army Air Forces during World War II before completing his bachelor’s degree at Stanford in 1948. He went on to earn a master’s degree in government from Harvard University in 1950, followed by a law degree from Stanford in 1952.

After clerking for Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, Rehnquist moved to Phoenix in 1953 to start a private law practice. In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed him Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. In 1971, Nixon nominated Rehnquist to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice. Rehnquist quickly emerged as a intellectual leader of the Court’s conservative wing.

In 1986, President Reagan elevated Rehnquist to the position of Chief Justice after the retirement of Warren E. Burger. Rehnquist served as Chief Justice until his death from thyroid cancer in 2005. He left a lasting impact on the Court through his conservative judicial philosophy and commitment to federalism and states’ rights.

Where Did William H. Rehnquist Go To College?

Stanford University

Rehnquist began his higher education at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He entered Stanford in 1942 and studied political science. His education was interrupted by World War II when Rehnquist enlisted in the Army Air Forces. After the war ended, Rehnquist returned to Stanford and completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1948.

Rehnquist’s undergraduate studies at Stanford sparked his interest in the law. After working briefly as an insurance claims adjuster, he returned to Stanford in 1950 for formal legal education. Rehnquist graduated first in his class from Stanford Law School in 1952 with a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) degree. His stellar academic performance earned him a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson.

Harvard University

In between his undergraduate and law school years at Stanford, Rehnquist pursued a Master of Arts degree in government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He completed the one year master’s program in 1950.

Rehnquist’s time at Harvard exposed him to new intellectual perspectives and expanded his understanding of legal philosophy and constitutional interpretation. His Harvard education shaped his analytical thinking abilities and cemented his judicial conservatism.

After clerking for Justice Jackson in 1952-1953, Rehnquist settled in Phoenix, Arizona and opened a private law practice. He quickly earned a reputation as a skilled appellate lawyer, appearing before state and federal courts. Among his high-profile clients was future Chief Justice John Paul Stevens in a libel case.

In 1969, President Nixon recruited Rehnquist to lead the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Rehnquist impressed Nixon with his staunch conservatism and intellectual vigor. In 1971, Nixon nominated him to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court caused by the retirements of John Marshall Harlan II and Hugo Black.

Rehnquist’s Supreme Court Tenure

Rehnquist took his seat as an Associate Justice in January 1972 at just 47 years old, making him one of the youngest members of the Burger Court. He immediately aligned himself with the Court’s conservative wing.

Some highlights of Rehnquist’s 33 years on the Supreme Court include:

  • Authoring the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade that upheld state restrictions on abortion
  • Dissenting in cases that expanded Miranda rights and defendant protections
  • Writing the National League of Cities v. Usery decision that expanded state sovereignty over federal regulation
  • Presiding over the United States v. Lopez case that limited federal Commerce Clause powers
  • Leading the five-justice majority in Bush v. Gore that settled the 2000 election

As Chief Justice from 1986 to 2005, Rehnquist focused on enhancing efficiency and led efforts to modernize the Court’s operations. He presided over an increasingly conservative Court that limited affirmative action and federal power. Rehnquist’s legacy rests on moving the Court to the right on divisive social issues.

Rehnquist on Social Media

As a private person who shunned publicity, Rehnquist did not maintain any public social media profiles or accounts during his lifetime. However, several sites provide insight into his career:

Frequently Asked Questions About William H. Rehnquist

Here are some common questions about Chief Justice Rehnquist’s background and career:

Where was William Rehnquist born?

William H. Rehnquist was born on October 1, 1924 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His family moved to Arizona when he was a child.

What did Rehnquist do before becoming a Supreme Court Justice?

Rehnquist served in the U.S. Army Air Force during WWII. After the war, he clerked for Justice Robert H. Jackson and practiced law in Phoenix, AZ. He later led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under Nixon.

What role did Rehnquist play in the 2000 election?

As Chief Justice in 2000, Rehnquist led the 5-4 Supreme Court majority in Bush v. Gore that effectively settled the contested election in favor of George W. Bush.

How long did Rehnquist serve on the Supreme Court?

Rehnquist served on the Supreme Court for 33 years. He joined the court as an Associate Justice in 1972 and served as Chief Justice from 1986 until his death in 2005.

What was Rehnquist’s judicial philosophy?

Rehnquist was a conservative jurist who believed in judicial restraint and deference to the elected branches. He opposed the expansion of rights and favored limiting federal power.