US Chief
Justice William Rehnquist was released from hospital overnight, amid
continuing speculation that his resignation is imminent (here
). Rehnquist is 80 and suffering from throat cancer, but he’s still
playing his cards close to his chest. George W Bush’s spokesman said
the White House only learned about his hospitalisation when they saw it
on the news.

already has one Supreme Court vacancy to fill, that of Sandra Day
O’Connor, who announced her retirement two weeks ago. O’Connor has been
one of the swing votes on a divided court, so her replacement is a
matter of vital interest to both sides of politics. But Rehnquist is a
hard-line conservative already, so replacing him offers no real gain
for the administration. And if both vacancies come up together, it will
be more difficult for Bush to name two conservatives and get them
through the Senate. That could be one reason why Rehnquist is hanging

Coincidentally, the last time two vacancies were filled at
once was when Richard Nixon nominated Rehnquist, together with the late
justice Lewis Powell, back in 1971. I’ve been reading an interesting
book about that appointment The Rehnquist Choice (2001, Simon
& Schuster), by John Dean, the Watergate conspirator and
whistleblower. Dean was counsel to the president at the time and was
one of those who supported Rehnquist – a decision he now regrets.

White House conversations were taped, Dean is able to report much of
the process verbatim, and it makes a good read – if only to remind
oneself of what an appalling person Nixon was. Not just for his tirades
against blacks, women and (especially) Jews, but also his contempt for
the legal system in general. His key criteria for judges were toughness
on crime and hostility to racial integration. “God d*mn it,” he
exclaims at one point (page 98), “when is [Mitchell] going to learn
that the courts are our enemy.”

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 30 years for an insider to tell us how the process works in the Bush White House.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey