by Gail P. Montany
Rotarians and their guests were treated Monday to a unique peek into a corner of U.S. Supreme Court history - liberally sprinkled with humor and down-to-earth Midwestern sensibility - by its current leader, William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States.
Rehnquist, a summer resident of Greensboro, spoke to a packed St. Johnsbury Rotary meeting at the Lincoln Inn of the Supreme Court's slightly less-than-auspicious beginning, and the importance of longevity.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court was designed to be - and indeed is now - an important player in the governing of the country, that has not always been the case.
Between 1789 and 1800, the court decided only 10 cases, said Rehnquist, with justices riding circuit on horseback and in wagons throughout the 13 states for all but the six weeks the court was in session.
John Jay, the first chief justice, appointed by George Washington in 1789, and an aristocratic New Yorker, was sent to Paris in 1784 to help hammer out the Treaty of Paris. Rehnquist drew laughter when he said there was no indication Jay was greatly missed by the Supreme Court during his 11-year absence. Upon Jay's 1795 return, he found he had been elected governor of New York in absentia.
"You could imagine something like that happening today," joked Rehnquist.
The next chief justice, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, was sent to France by President John Adams to negotiate the so-called "undeclared war" for a number of years, and again, apparently was not missed.
When the nation's capital was moved to Washington, D.C., in 1800, no provisions were made to house the Supreme Court, and that branch was hastily housed in a cramped room in the basement of the new Capitol building.
"(The Supreme Court) was way down the list of important government agencies," he noted.
Ellsworth - who resigned upon becoming ill while in Paris - was replaced as chief justice with Virginia Federalist John Marshall by then-lame duck President Adams, a move soon-to-be President Thomas Jefferson would likely not have made, said Rehnquist.
Marshall, who served 34 years with the court, had limited formal and legal education but was blessed with political savvy, won the opportunity to serve at Valley Forge with Washington during the Revolution, which taught him, said Rehnquist, "to think of the United States as a country and the Congress as government - quite a remarkable notion at the time."
Under Marshall, the court decided Marbury vs. Madison, considered the cornerstone of constitutional law. That decision found an act of Congress to be unconstitutional, thus establishing the Supreme Court's ultimate authority on constitutional law and its power of judicial review.
"It was a tremendously novel idea at the time and remained so until after World War II," the chief justice said.
So great was Marshall's service and contribution to the present day status of the Supreme Court he is referred to as "the great chief justice," said Rehnquist.
His successor, Roger B. Taney, served from 1836 to 1864. Both men helped establish the present status of the Supreme Court as a branch of government with a considerable amount of power.
The court's biggest mistake, noted Rehnquist in answer to a question from Ben Harris, was the 1857 Dred Scott vs. Sanford case, which held that descendants of slaves were not citizens and that Congress could not forbid slavery in new territories.
Chief Justice Rehnquist, 72, was born in Milwaukee, Wis., and attended public schools in Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee. He attended Stanford and Harvard universities, graduating in 1952 from Stanford with an LLB after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps here and overseas from 1943 to 1946. After serving a law clerkship to Justice Robert H. Jackson for a year in
1952, he entered private law practice in Phoenix, Ariz. He married the late Natalie Cornell of San Diego, Calif, with whom he had a son and two daughters.
Rehnquist was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and nominated chief justice by President Ronald Reagan 1986. He is one of the longest-serving chief justices in history.