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William H. Rehnquist turned 80 on Friday, a milestone reached by only one other chief justice of the United States. Though slowed by back and knee problems, he remains invigorated by the job and appears in no hurry to give up the title of the nation’s top judge. Named to the Supreme Court by President Nixon in 1972, Rehnquist was expected to mark his birthday much like any other work day — reviewing legal documents, while keeping a watchful eye on details of court life such as public exhibits. That steady discipline is the mark of a chief justice who has defied retirement rumors even as some observers wonder whether his conservative legacy — empowering states, limiting abortion and preserving the death penalty — may finally have run its course. “The Rehnquist revolution has hit the wall until the membership of the Court changes,” said Tom Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who specializes in the Supreme Court. On his birthday Rehnquist surpasses John Marshall, Charles Hughes and Warren Burger as the second-oldest chief justice. Each was 79 when he stepped down. The only older chief justice was Roger Taney, who presided over the high court in the mid-1800s until his death at 87. Rehnquist, elevated to chief justice in 1986 by President Reagan, has been consistent in his beliefs and activities. He continues to hire law clerks with whom he can play tennis. He streamlines justice meetings to reduce time-consuming debate. He also has been known to pore over court details such as decorations for the annual holiday party. While some believe this will be Rehnquist’s last term, many others are not so sure. “I think it’s possible he’ll stick around. The Court is his home and his family,” said Chris Landau, a Washington lawyer and former law clerk to Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Rehnquist rarely does interviews. A Court spokeswoman said Thursday that the chief justice was unavailable to talk about his birthday or his future. In the early 1990s, Rehnquist toyed with the idea of retirement, citing the danger of defining oneself too much by a job. His wife’s death, however, changed that. Traveling is not as much fun when it is alone, he has said. Rehnquist has hired law clerks through June 2006. At a birthday celebration with former clerks, he made no mention of stepping down. When he was appointed in 1972, Rehnquist was a conservative who campaigned for presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. Rehnquist quickly became known as the “lone ranger” among his more liberal colleagues. He wrote stinging dissents in cases upholding abortion rights and busing to desegregate schools. A series of more conservative judicial appointments by Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush changed the Court’s makeup. By the late 1990s, Rehnquist was at the forefront of several majority rulings allowing the use of public money for religious institutions and greater government powers for police searches. Since then, Rehnquist’s influence has become less clear. Partisans criticized the Court following its 5-4 Bush v. Gore decision that made George W. Bush the winner of the presidential election in 2000. Rehnquist also has lost major rulings that weakened states’ rights involving a disability law, upheld affirmative action and promoted gay rights. Some observers attribute that to a leftward shift for Reagan appointees Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, two swing voters who have undermined Rehnquist’s influence. The same nine justices have served together since 1994, the longest stretch since the early 19th century. “The revolution is over,” said University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia, who says now might be a logical time for a Rehnquist departure. Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke Law School and other Court watchers disagree, noting that Rehnquist could have chances this term to write opinions on the constitutionality of federal sentencing guidelines and the juvenile death penalty. Several challenges to the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act are also expected to make their way to the Supreme Court. They also point out that Rehnquist is two years shy of equaling Marshall’s 34-year tenure on the Court and four years short of tying William O. Douglas’ record as the longest-serving justice ever. “He’s very conscious of his role in history. So I would think it’s a real incentive for him to stay on awhile,” Chemerinsky said. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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