Supreme Court of the United States
Rehnquist Court
September 26, 1986 – September 3, 2005
(18 years, 342 days)
SeatSupreme Court Building
Washington, D.C.
No. of positions9
Rehnquist Court decisions

The Rehnquist Court was the period in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States during which William Rehnquist served as Chief Justice. Rehnquist succeeded Warren Burger as Chief Justice after the latter's retirement, and Rehnquist held this position until his death in 2005, at which point John Roberts was nominated and confirmed as Rehnquist's replacement. The Rehnquist Court is generally considered to be more conservative than the preceding Burger Court, but not as conservative as the succeeding Roberts Court. According to Jeffrey Rosen, Rehnquist combined an amiable nature with great organizational skill, and he "led a Court that put the brakes on some of the excesses of the Earl Warren era while keeping pace with the sentiments of a majority of the country."[1]

Biographer John Jenkins argued that Rehnquist politicized the Supreme Court and moved the court and the country to the right.[2] Through its rulings, the Rehnquist Court often promoted a policy of New Federalism in which more power was given to the states at the expense of the federal government.[3] The Rehnquist Court was also notable for its stability, as the same nine justices served together for 11 years from 1994 to 2005, the longest such stretch in Supreme Court history.[4]


Rehnquist joined the Court in 1972 after Richard Nixon appointed him as an associate justice, and Rehnquist remained in that position until Ronald Reagan elevated him to the position of Chief Justice in 1986, when Warren Burger retired. Rehnquist's vacant Associate Justice seat was filled by Antonin Scalia. The Rehnquist Court thus began on September 26, 1986, with Scalia and the final eight members of the Burger Court: Rehnquist, William Brennan, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, John Paul Stevens, and Sandra Day O'Connor.

Powell retired in 1987; President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork was defeated by the Senate, and his second nominee, Douglas H. Ginsburg, withdrew before a vote. Reagan's third nominee, Anthony Kennedy, was confirmed by the Senate. Brennan retired in 1990 and Marshall in 1991, giving President George H. W. Bush the opportunity to appoint Justices David Souter and Clarence Thomas. White retired in 1993 and Blackmun retired in 1994, and President Bill Clinton appointed Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer to replace White and Blackmun respectively.

The composition of the Supreme Court remained unchanged for the balance of the Rehnquist Court, which ended when Rehnquist died on September 3, 2005. He was succeeded by the current Chief Justice, John Roberts, who was appointed to the position by George W. Bush.


Bar key:
  Eisenhower appointee   Kennedy appointee   L. Johnson appointee   Nixon appointee   Ford appointee   Reagan appointee   G. H. W. Bush appointee   Clinton appointee

Other branches

Presidents during this court included Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Congresses during this court included the 99th through the 109th United States Congresses.

Rulings of the Court

See also: List of United States Supreme Court cases by the Rehnquist Court

The Rehnquist Court in 2003

The Rehnquist Court issued several notable rulings touching on many aspects of American life. Landmark cases of the Rehnquist Court include:[3][5][6]

Judicial philosophy

Rehnquist had often been a lone conservative dissenter during the Burger Court, but the appointments of O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and, perhaps most importantly, Thomas, moved the court to the right.[1][7] Rehnquist favored returning power to the states at the expense of the federal government, and he was joined by the aforementioned justices in striking down federal laws,[3] which the Rehnquist Court did more often than any previous court.[8][9] These five justices formed a dominant conservative bloc, though Rehnquist was slightly less committed to ideological purity than Scalia or Thomas,[1] and Justices Kennedy and O'Connor often served as swing votes who would side with the more liberal justices.[6][10] O'Connor's prominence as a swing vote led some to call it the "O'Connor Court," and she wrote several important opinions.[8] Justice Stevens, the most senior associate justice during much of the Rehnquist Court, led the liberal bloc, which also included Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer.[11] Stevens was often successful in winning over either or both of O'Connor and Kennedy in order to stymie the agenda of the court's conservative bloc.[12] Of the nine justices who served from 1994–2005, seven had been appointed by Republican presidents, and the relative liberalism of some of those justices (particularly Stevens and Souter) frustrated many in the Republican Party.[13]



  1. ^ a b c Rosen, Jeffrey (April 2005). "Rehnquist the Great?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  2. ^ Mears, Bill (28 October 2012). "New biography details Rehnquist's complex legacy". CNN. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d Greenhouse, Linda (4 September 2005). "William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of Supreme Court, Is Dead at 80". New York Times. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  4. ^ Tushnet, Mark V. (2005). A Court Divided: The Rehnquist Court and the Future of Constitutional Law. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 67. ISBN 0-393-05868-9.
  5. ^ Curry, Tom (4 September 2005). "Chief justice shaped high court conservatism". NBC. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  6. ^ a b Biskupic, Joan (4 September 2005). "Rehnquist left Supreme Court with conservative legacy". USA Today. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  7. ^ Biskupic, Joan (2 November 2011). "Justice Stevens' memoir: Modest tone but pointed critiques". USA Today. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  8. ^ a b Berger Levinson, Rosalie (Summer 2006). "Will the New Federalism Be the Legacy of the Rehnquist Court?". Valparaiso University Law Review. 40 (3): 589–598. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  9. ^ Ringhand, Lori (April 2007). "THE REHNQUIST COURT: A "BY THE NUMBERS" RETROSPECTIVE" (PDF). Journal of Constitutional Law. 9 (4). Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  10. ^ Lane, Charles (5 September 2005). "The Rehnquist Legacy: 33 Years Turning Back the Court". Washington Post. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  11. ^ Savage, David (3 July 2005). "Court's Liberal Bloc Stands Firm". LA Times. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  12. ^ Sherman, Mark (9 April 2010). "Stevens carved liberal legacy on high court". Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  13. ^ Savage, David (10 June 2001). "Stevens, Souter: Supremely Vexing to GOP". LA Times. Retrieved 27 February 2016.

Further reading

Works centering on the Rehnquist Court[edit]

  • Banks, Christopher P.; Blakeman, John C. (2012). The U.S. Supreme Court and New Federalism: From the Rehnquist to the Roberts Court. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780742535046.
  • Belsky, Martin H. (2002). The Rehnquist Court: A Retrospective. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195348934.
  • Hensley, Thomas R.; Hale, Kathleen; Snook, Carl (2006). The Rehnquist Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576072004.
  • Schwarz, Herman (2002). The Rehnquist Court: Judicial Activism on the Right. Hill and Wang. ISBN 9780809080731.
  • Simon, James F. (2012). The Center Holds: The Power Struggle Inside the Rehnquist Court. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781439143254.
  • Yarbrough, Tinsley E. (2000). The Rehnquist Court and the Constitution. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195356021.

Works centering on Rehnquist Court justices[edit]

Other relevant works[edit]