Bill Moyers Essay: William Rehnquist’s Chief Justice Appointment

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Bill Moyers considers William Rehnquist as Supreme Court Chief Justice, including his pro-segregation history.


DAN RATHER: The stalemate and argument over President Reagan’s choice of William Rehnquist to be the new Chief Justice of the United States rolls on. Some Senate Democrats and Republicans indicate they are considering subpoenas for documents written by Rehnquist that President Reagan refuses to give up, documents written by Rehnquist for the Nixon White House.

The questions over whether Rehnquist should have the job of Chief Justice are the subject of CBS News Correspondent Bill Moyers commentary.

BILL MOYERS: We’re told William Rehnquist is brilliant, “the best and the brightest,” so opponents of his nomination are advised to sit down and shut up, and not to question his credentials to be Chief Justice. But the issue isn’t merely how sharp one’s mind, how deep one’s learning, how great the powers of pen or tongue. The issue is to what purpose such talents are given.

When I was growing up, the argument that blacks should remain second-class citizens was often made by men with first-class minds, men steeped in Blackstone, the classics and the Founding Fathers. They were dazzling in defense of segregation, but they were blind. As the civil rights struggle began to take hold, they resisted it with all their learning and wisdom, William Rehnquist among them. He opposed the Supreme Court ruling that desegregated the schools, opposed the civil rights legislation of the ’60s, opposed efforts in his home town to outlaw racial discrimination in public facilities. He argued, as so many did then, from a pinched view of the Constitution, that the founders and framers did not intend property rights to be compromised, even to equal protection of the law.

It was reminiscent of Chief Justice Roger Taney’s argument in the Dred Scott decision that helped to bring on the Civil War. The Constitution, Taney said, clearly did not intend Negroes to enjoy the blessings of liberty because they were property and the rights of their masters to own property was a constitutional guarantee.

We’ve come a long way since then, but not with the help of William Rehnquist. People change as laws change. They grow older and sometimes wiser of heart. God
save us all from the errors of our youth, but Justice Rehnquist has since compiled a record that demonstrates little generosity toward minority and individual rights.

America is still trying to prove that a pluralistic, multi-racial society can work. We inch slowly and painfully forward, only to slip back when we cease to be vigilant. It is still a struggle, this quest for equal rights, and now we’re about to get a Chief Justice who never believed in it in the first place, opposed it all along the way, and for all his learning and intellect, is no friend of it today.

This transcript was entered on June 17, 2015.

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