Book Excerpt: 'Supreme Conflict'


That claim would prove false. The chief justice's black leather chair, in the center of the Court's bench, would go empty for four months while Rehnquist underwent treatment to reduce the cancerous tumor. He didn't tell the justices about his prognosis, but some of his colleagues assumed he would never again sit beside them in court. Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court's most senior associate justice, took over for Rehnquist in the public sessions and ran the justices' private conferences, where they discuss cases and vote. Stevens even began to relax the terms of the Court's discussions, giving the lawyers and the justices more time to make their points than Rehnquist had allowed.

But Rehnquist, ever the tough old Lutheran, would swear in President Bush during a wintry inauguration ceremony, and he would be back in the courtroom by the end of March. His deep and resonant voice was forever changed, but he allowed no concessions to be made to his weakened condition. He sternly cut off lawyers when their time expired, almost as if he'd opened a trapdoor. He kept a tight rein on the conferences, just as he always had. But he was fading away, his clothes getting looser on his angular frame and his wristwatch dangling near his knuckles when his hands were at his sides.

After Rehnquist had returned to the courthouse and resumed more of his old duties, O'Connor went by her old friend's chamber to talk. Like everyone else, O'Connor thought he would be retiring at the end of the term, and she had reluctantly concluded that she should begin planning her own departure. John, her devoted husband of fifty-two years, was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and he was becoming increasingly frail. She wouldn't be able to stay on the Court indefinitely, she confided to Rehnquist. "I might have to do this," O'Connor said.

But Rehnquist surprised O'Connor. Despite his obviously weakening condition, he hadn't looked that far ahead into his own future. "We don't need two vacancies," he said. "But let's just wait. Let's talk later." O'Connor and Rehnquist had been friends for more than fifty years, since their days together at Stanford Law School. They'd come from very different places -- he was the A student from Wisconsin who'd been an army weatherman; she was the Arizona cowgirl who roped and rode horses with the boys. But Rehnquist had a quick wit, and O'Connor loved a good joke, so the two socialized often. Since Stanford didn't have on-campus housing for women graduate students, O'Connor and other women students lived in a co-op apartment. Rehnquist and his friends would visit and help with dinner. Afterward, the group would play charades, a game Bill Rehnquist would enjoy his entire life, especially with his law clerks.

After law school, Rehnquist clerked on the Supreme Court, and he received lucrative job offers from private law firms. O'Connor, also a star student at Stanford University and its law school, didn't enjoy similar treatment. She had completed her schooling in six years instead of seven, having spent her fourth year as an undergraduate earning credit in the law school, and she had earned top grades. But she had just one law firm interview, and the partner asked her how well she could type.

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