Law Professors Remember Rehnquist

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who passed away Sept. 3 after battling thyroid cancer, had visited William & Mary Law School several times during his tenure on the Supreme Court.

Rehnquist visited in 1991 to help the Law School's Institute of Bill of Rights Law celebrate the 200th anniversary of the country's Bill of Rights. In 2000, he came to help commemorate the 200th anniversary of John Marshall's appointment as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and to take part in the dedication of statues of Marshall and his law teacher, George Wythe. Rehnquist's most recent visit to the Law School came in 2003, when he returned to speak at a conference sponsored by the Institute of Bill of Rights Law and by the National Center for State Courts.

Following are some reflections on the Chief Justice by members of the law school community.

Taylor Reveley, Dean and Professor of Law:
"The Chief was a delight to be with. For someone with such power and so many responsibilities, he was remarkably low key and congenial in person, though he was not keen on having his picture taken and even less enthusiastic about signing autographs. He had a wicked sense of humor, which he was quite willing to unleash, especially when talking informally. Whenever he was at the Law School, he showed genuine interest in how we were faring, the students especially."

William Van Alstyne, Lee Professor of Law:
"I knew Chief Justice Rehnquist reasonably well, partly just because we were both graduates of the Stanford Law School. Though we didn't overlap as students (he graduated several years before I enrolled there), we shared memories of many of the same professors, including John Hurlbut, who taught principally courses in civil procedure and evidence, a particular favorite, as he turned out to be, whom we both admired very much.

"I mention this matter ahead of all other reminiscences because it stands out in my mind for a special reason . . . A few years ago when asked who were the most influential figures in his life, on a very public occasion when I was present, Rehnquist picked out this professor, John Hurlbut, by name, quite to the puzzlement of many in attendance at the time. The puzzlement was understandable, after all, Professor Hurlbut was scarcely known nationally. In all his many years on the Stanford faculty, he had published very little, thus his name had no special cachet outside the circle of the several hundreds of students who had experienced his classrooms in which he taught.

"Within those classrooms, however, Hurlbut was a great force . . . just a great teacher. One simply never wanted to be unprepared. And not from fear, nor just from worry over one's grade in the course. Rather, because his own energy, his preparation, his engagement, and his spirit made it a matter of real principle that one simply didn't want to disappoint him. It was his own regard for the subject that made each of us, in his classroom, unable to let him down. Moreover, one was brought to see the subject even as he brought us to see it . . . as important, as intriguing, as fraught with challenge, as worthwhile to explore, to understand, to fit within one's mastery of skills and make memorable and useful all at the same time.

"When Chief Justice Rehnquist thus brought up Professor Hurlbut's name, quite out of the blue, rather than mentioning someone more "important," say, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., or Benjamin Cardozo, or at least some other legal scholar of that time, I knew then that I would like him for this surprising response before a large public audience for whom it meant nothing at all.

"For, indeed, John Hurlbut was of just the same special force in my own legal education, as he had evidently likewise been several years earlier, for William Rehnquist. And the fact that this was so, has been an important lesson for me in intellectual humility, ever since. It reminds one that very often, the persons who affect one most deeply and lastingly in academic life, as in life in general, are not among the famous, the best published, or the acknowledged recipients of numerous honors and of honorary degrees. Indeed, sometimes, they are just "great teachers" who specially touched one's thoughts and life as a student, though they may not even have had inkling it was so."

Davison M. Douglas, Hanson Professor of Law:
"The Chief Justice was here a number of times. I remember best his trip to William & Mary to dedicate the two statues out in front of the Law School - John Marshall and George Wythe in 2000. One anecdote from that visit: He was a big college football fan and so whenever we invited him here, we would make sure to invite him at a time when there was a home football game. The opportunity to take in a William & Mary football game was the final inducement that would get him to come down here. The time he came to dedicate the statues, I was his host and took him to the football game-we were playing the University of Rhode Island. We were up in the president's box, where there was a lot of socializing going on during the game. Not Rehnquist. He followed the game very closely, and would offer commentary on the various plays on the field, like, ‘particularly effective blocking on that play'-suggesting that he was an avid fan.

"The Chief Justice also came here in 1991 on the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. He was in those days an avid tennis player, so the College arranged a tennis game between Rehnquist, then-President Verkuil, and two law faculty members, Charles Koch and Mike Gerhardt. Gerhardt was a really splendid player and was teamed with Rehnquist. Given Rehnquist's right-leaning judicial tendencies, Mike quipped that he had to cover a lot of the tennis court that day as Rehnquist's partner, because Rehnquist ‘couldn't go to his left.'"

Neal Devins, Goodrich Professor of Law and Professor of Government:
"I had the good fortune of sitting next to the Chief Justice at two William & Mary football games, one in the early 1990s and the other in 2003. Not only was the Chief a great fan of William & Mary football, he was extremely humble and down to earth. He was very curious about a book I was working on about elected government interpretation of the Constitution. The Chief Justice also spoke with great excitement about his research on a book on presidential impeachment trials (a book he wrote well before he found himself presiding over the Clinton impeachment trial). Our back and forth conversation about football and scholarship struck me as no different from the conversation I might have with an affable colleague. Indeed, it did not really occur to me that I was speaking to the Chief Justice of the United States until the game had ended."

Linda Malone, Marshall-Wythe Foundation Professor of Law:
"I met the Chief Justice both here and at Duke Law School. At every event, he was a very gracious, generous, and modest visitor. I was particularly struck by how genuinely interested he remained in hearing from the students when given the opportunity. After many years of experience in the law, it still seemed to intrigue and engage him, whatever the topic of discussion."