Farewell to the Chief

Temperatures were in the ’80’s in Washington, D.C., September 6th and, after the Labor Day weekend, the nation’s capitol was bustling with people returning to work.

But this did not deter the long lines of friends, people who knew him, and many who knew of him from waiting patiently to bid farewell to the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. When I arrived at the Supreme Court building at 2:30, the lines of mourners who came to see Rehnquist lie in state stretched all the way down two flights of steps, and filled an entire sidewalk on 1st Street NE. Overall, it took one hour for me to make it down the street, up the stairs, and then finally into the rotunda of the court.

There the flag-draped coffin of the 16th chief justice in U.S. history lie, flanked by two uniformed servicemen and two court employees in business suits. Busts of Rehnquist’s historic predecessors such as William Howard Taft, Charles Evans Hughes, and John Marshall looked down on the last person to hold the highest judicial office in the U.S. A portrait of Rehnquist–resplendant in the signature robes with stripes that he had designed himself–greeted those who came to pay their respects.

Perhaps the most moving story was in those who came to the court. While many did indeed know the chief justice, there were easily just as many who had only read of him or had a passing acquaintance with the man who served on the Supreme Court for 33 yars (the last 19 as chief justice). One lady, a lawyer from BNA, Inc. in Washington whom I met in line, recalled to me how she felt Rehnquist was "one of the most impressive people of our time" and an unforgettable figure. Did she know him, I wondered? "Not really," she replied, "He was a surprise guest at a board meeting of a group a friend of mine was involved in. He made a strong impression when he spoke and was most attentive when I met him." Because of the impression he made and the resultant admiration, she explained, she came to pay her respects to William Rehnquist.