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Below are some of the major opinions and dissents written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist… Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority Decided Feb. 19, 1985 In a dissent in Garcia, Rehnquist correctly forecast that states’ rights would rise again. The majority ruled that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime-pay requirements applied to the San Antonio public transportation system. Rehnquist, in a one-paragraph dissent, said, “I think it is incumbent on those of us in dissent to spell out further the fine points of a principle that will, I am confident, in time again command the support of a majority of this Court.”
Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson Decided June 19, 1986 For the first time, the Supreme Court determined that “sex discrimination” encompassed sexual harassment in the workplace. “Without question, when a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate’s sex, that supervisor �discriminate[s]‘ on the basis of sex,” Rehnquist wrote for a unanimous Court. But he said that to form the basis of a lawsuit, the harassment had to be “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive work environment.
Hustler Magazine v. Falwell Decided Feb. 24, 1988 The Court, in an 8-0 decision, gave First Amendment protection to a parody published in Hustler magazine making fun of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. “Despite their sometimes caustic nature, from the early cartoon portraying George Washington as an ass down to the present day, graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate,” wrote Rehnquist. “From the viewpoint of history, it is clear that our political discourse would have been considerably poorer without them.”
Morrison v. Olson Decided June 29, 1988 The Court, led by Rehnquist, upheld the method of appointing special prosecutors under the Ethics in Government Act. Under the act, a specially created court appoints independent counsels. Balancing all the factors, the justices, in a 7-1 decision, ruled that the act did not violate the separation of powers. Rehnquist wrote: “We have never held that the Constitution requires that the three branches of Government operate with absolute independence.”
Texas v. Johnson Decided June 21, 1989 By a 5-4 vote, the Court struck down a Texas law that barred desecration of the American flag. The majority said that the law violated the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment. In a dissent, Rehnquist wrote that the flag, “throughout more than 200 years of our history, has come to be the visible symbol embodying our Nation. It does not represent the views of any particular political party, and it does not represent any particular political philosophy. The flag is not simply another �idea’ or �point of view’ competing for recognition in the marketplace of ideas. Millions and millions of Americans regard it with an almost mystical reverence, regardless of what sort of social, political, or philosophical beliefs they may have. I cannot agree that the First Amendment invalidates the Act of Congress, and the laws of 48 of the 50 States, which make criminal the public burning of the flag.”
Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health Decided June 25, 1990 Ruling in the Court’s first “right to die” case, Rehnquist wrote for a 5-4 majority that “for purposes of this case, we assume that the United States Constitution would grant a competent person a constitutionally protected right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrition.” But states, he noted, could require the terminally ill to make their desire to withhold treatment clear. Because Nancy Cruzan, comatose from a car accident, had not made her wishes regarding medical care clear, the Court ruled Missouri had a legitimate interest in denying the family’s request to withhold treatment.
United States v. Lopez Decided April 26, 1995 Rehnquist’s opinion challenged a 60-year trend of upholding acts of Congress that were based on its power to regulate interstate commerce. The Court held that Congress had exceeded its commerce clause authority when it passed the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which prohibited possession of firearms within 1,000 feet of a school. The law “neither regulates a commercial activity nor contains a requirement that the possession be connected in any way to interstate commerce,” Rehnquist wrote.
Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida Decided March 27, 1996 Seminole is another decision curbing the federal government’s power, this time under the 11th Amendment. The 5-4 majority led by Rehnquist held that Congress did not have the power to authorize Indian tribes to sue states under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Wrote Rehnquist, “Even when the Constitution vests in Congress complete law-making authority over a particular area, the Eleventh Amendment prevents congressional authorization of suits by private parties against unconsenting States.”
Washington v. Glucksberg Decided June 26, 1997 Right-to-die advocates in Glucksberg attempted to take the liberty interest the Court announced in Cruzan one step further, asking that the Court strike down state bans on physician-assisted suicide. Rehnquist’s opinion for a unanimous Court upheld the state laws and ruled that assisted suicide was not a fundamental right under the 14th Amendment due process clause. But he left it up to the states to develop the issue further: “Throughout the Nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality, and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society.” A case testing Oregon’s law allowing physician-assisted suicide is before the Court this fall.
Dickerson v. United States Decided June 26, 2000 After criticizing the Miranda doctrine for years, Rehnquist, in a surprising turn of events, upheld it in Dickerson. Miranda requires law enforcement to inform suspects taken into custody of certain rights, such as the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer. In Dickerson, the Court, by a 7-2 vote, held that Congress could not overrule the Supreme Court’s Miranda rule because it was grounded in the federal Constitution. “Congress retains the ultimate authority to modify or set aside any judicially created rules of evidence and procedure that are not required by the Constitution,” Rehnquist wrote. “But Congress may not legislatively supersede our decisions interpreting and applying the Constitution.”
Boy Scouts of America v. Dale Decided June 28, 2000 The Court, by a 5-4 vote, held that the state of New Jersey could not force the Boy Scouts of America to accept openly gay James Dale as an assistant scoutmaster through the state’s public accommodations law. The gay scoutmaster’s presence “affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints,” Rehnquist wrote. “The Boy Scouts takes an official position with respect to homosexual conduct, and that is sufficient for First Amendment purposes.”
Bush v. Gore Decided Dec. 12, 2000 Rehnquist was part of the 5-4 majority that halted the Florida presidential vote recount in 2000 and sealed the election for George W. Bush. In a concurring opinion, Rehnquist wrote that the Florida Supreme Court overstepped its bounds in extending the recount deadline, infringing on the Legislature’s statutory province. “This inquiry does not imply a disrespect for state courts but rather a respect for the constitutionally prescribed role of state legislatures,” he wrote. He also said that the court misinterpreted the meaning of “legal vote” and stated that improperly marked ballots were the fault of the voters and thus should not be subject to recount.
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris Decided June 27, 2002 In Zelman, the Rehnquist Court upheld school vouchers that allow parents to use state funds toward private�including parochial�school tuition. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Rehnquist asserted that the program did not violate the establishment clause. “Where a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause. A program that shares these features permits government aid to reach religious institutions only by way of the deliberate choices of numerous individual recipients.”
Locke v. Davey Decided Feb. 25, 2004 The Court, by a 7-2 vote, upheld a Washington state law preventing state scholarship recipients from using the money to train for a religious ministry. Rehnquist cited the strong commitment early in the nation’s history against taxpayer funds going to educate ministers. “The subject of religion is one in which both the United States and state constitutions embody distinct views�in favor of free exercise, but opposed to establishment�that find no counterpart with respect to other callings or professions,” Rehnquist wrote. “That a State would deal differently with religious education for ministry than with education for other callings is a product of these views, not evidence of hostility toward religion.”
Arthur Andersen v. United States Decided May 31, 2005 Writing for a unanimous Court, Rehnquist said that the government had taken too broad a view of a law that makes it a crime to “corruptly persuade” a witness to withhold evidence in an official proceeding. A Texas jury, following instructions based on that interpretation, had convicted the Andersen accounting firm for its role in the Enron scandal. Rehnquist wrote that restraint in interpreting statutes “is particularly appropriate here, where the act underlying the conviction��persua[sion]‘�is by itself innocuous. Indeed, �persuad[ing] a person with intent to . . . cause’ that person to withhold testimony or documents from a Government proceeding or Government official is not inherently malign. Consider, for instance, a mother who suggests to her son that he invoke his right against compelled self-incrimination . . . or a wife who persuades her husband not to disclose marital confidences.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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