Born in Milwaukee, Rehnquist attended Kenyon College in Ohio until 1942 when he was drafted. He served in the Army Air Corps as a weather observer in North Africa during World War II, then used the GI Bill to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science from Stanford University.
Rehnquist received another master’s in government at Harvard University before returning to Stanford for his law degree. He graduated first in his class in 1952. One of his classmates was Sandra Day O’Connor, a jurist who would eventually become his colleague on the Supreme Court.
After clerking for Justice Robert Jackson and Justice Felix Frankfurter, Rehnquist moved to Phoenix, where he worked for a local law firm and became a Republican party official. The political connections he made in Arizona helped him land a coveted job as an assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. In this position, he screened candidates for potential Supreme Court slots. When Justice John Marshall Harlan decided to retire in 1971, Rehnquist’s boss Attorney General John Mitchell put forth his name for the job. Rehnquist was confirmed a few months later and joined the Court on Jan. 7, 1972.
Rehnquist spent three decades on the bench and 19 years presiding over the highest court in the land. Elevated to the chief justice position in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Rehnquist was known for his conservative ideology, for strongly supporting states’ rights and for narrowly interpreting the U.S. Constitution. He affirmed use of the death penalty and was one of only two dissenters in the landmark Roe v. Wade case, which established a woman’s right to have an abortion. The second-oldest man to preside over the Supreme Court, Rehnquist was also the second chief justice in U.S. history to preside over a presidential impeachment — that of President Bill Clinton, who was acquitted.
Outside of the courtroom, Rehnquist painted, sang, collected stamps and enjoyed playing the occasional game of poker. He married Natalie “Nan” Cornell in 1953 and fathered three children; Nan died in 1991 of ovarian cancer. Rehnquist also published several books about the law, including “The Supreme Court” and “Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson.”
Despite suffering from thyroid cancer in recent years, Rehnquist refused to stop working. According to CNN, he was “in his office until a few weeks ago.”