GUEST COLUMN: Reflections on William Rehnquist

Richard Robyn

The passing of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist brings special poignancy to some of us from Kent State who were privileged to meet him in the Supreme Court building for a briefing. For us, that briefing was surprising and funny, as well as enlightening.

As director of the Washington Program in National Issues, I take a group of Kent State students to Washington, D.C. every spring semester. There we do academic work that centers on the inner workings of the American government and on contemporary politics and includes briefings with professionals. In addition, the students do internships at a variety of locations in and around the city.

We were astonished at how the Chief started the briefing, which took place in a beautifully appointed chamber just off the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. “I believe I may be the only justice of the Supreme Court who has been to Kent State University,” he said. “And I’m fairly certain that I am the only one to spend a night in jail there.”

He went on to explain. When he was on break as a pre-World War II freshman at Kenyon College, he drove in his Studebaker jalopy to Kent State to visit a friend who was a student here. He must have gotten the dates mixed up, because his friend was nowhere to be found. At loose ends, and with little money to his name, he searched around for a place to stay the night. He wound up in Ravenna at the county courthouse and curled up on a bench there. During the night, a policeman came by and woke him, demanding he go home. When he explained his situation and said he had nowhere to go, the cop took pity on him and took him into the nearby jail, putting him up for the night in a warm cell. Neither of them, of course, realized the significance of jailing the future head of the federal judiciary.

After this rather astonishing beginning, the Chief went on to give us a brief overview of the work of the Court, and then took questions from us for nearly an hour. The students took advantage of the opportunity, peppering him with a variety of questions, from asking him the most influential person in his life (his father) to his opinion on the most influential justice in history. For the latter question, by the way, he answered John Marshall, the nineteenth century Chief Justice who through his rulings extended the influence of the Supreme Court to make it a co-equal branch of the American government. However, he added that another very influential justice was Ohioan William Howard Taft, who became Chief Justice after being President. Taft was primarily responsible for the construction of the Supreme Court building itself, the tangible proof of the independence and co-equality of the judiciary.

The Chief, of course, was well known for his conservative views, and many of the students did not share his political philosophy. But afterwards, when I asked their reactions, they were unanimous in saying they were impressed with him and appreciated his candor, his breadth of knowledge of the law and his good humor. For many, it was the highlight of our semester in Washington.

Richard Robyn is an assistant professor of political science, director of the Washington Program in National Issues and a guest columnist for the Daily Kent Stater.