Nixon's Final Advice to Rehnquist

Rehnquist was nominated by President Richard Nixon in late 1971 and sworn in January 7, 1972. Rehnquist had served in the Nixon administration as Assistant Attorney General from 1969 to 1971. The 47-year-old had a reputation for being an outspoken conservative, a reputation he lived up to while on the court. He rose to Chief Justice in 1986, nominated by President Reagan.

William Rehnquist's nomination to the Supreme Court in 1971 ran into trouble with the publication of a memo he had written nearly two decades earlier as a law clerk to Justice Robert Jackson. The memo, titled "Random Thought on the Segregation Case" and bearing Rehnquist's initials, urged the high court to uphold Plessy v. Freguson, notorious for the "separate but equal" doctrine that upheld racial segregation. "I know it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by 'liberal' colleagues, but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed," the memo stated. "Regardless of the Justice’s individual views of the merits of segregation, it quite clearly is not one of those extreme cases which commands intervention from anyone of any conviction."

The memo emerged on Dec. 5, 1971, just days before the Senate was to vote on the Rehnquist nomination. Rehnquist wrote to one of his Senate backers that the memo was composed at the request of Justice Jackson and was intended as a rough draft statement of Jackson's views, not his own. There was some thought of putting off the Senate vote until the next session of Congress, but in this Dec. 10, 1971, conversation with his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon threatened to retaliate by convening a special session of Congress that would force senators to work through the holidays.

The Senate voted to confirm Rehnquist's nomination later that afternoon by a vote of 68-26. Upon hearing of the confirmation, Nixon telephoned Rehnquist from the Oval Office to congratulate him and offer some final advice.

Date: 
Dec 10, 1971
Participants: 
Richard Nixon, William Rehnquist
Conversation Number: 
Nixon Presidential Materials Project, NARA