Saturday, January 06, 2007

Rehnquist Redux

In private correspondence and comments on the blog, some readers questioned my dismissal of the impact of the late Chief's drug addiction on his work. Here I want to explain why I think it's ultimately not the real story and then suggest how it nonetheless might be thought relevant to an evaluation of his tenure.

It's true, as some have observed, that we can't ever really know what impact, if any, the meds had on Rehnquist's jurisprudence, but here are 2 reasons to think that the impact was negligible. First, one sees no evidence of any change in Rehnquist's opinions or behavior on the bench in 1981, when he detoxed and ceased taking the pills, or for that matter, at any earlier or later point. Second, the only evidence of bizarre behavior in the FBI files is of how he behaved after he had checked himself into the hospital. This behavior, including paranoia and disorientation, was apparently caused by withdrawal from the drug, rather than the drug itself. The condition that led Rehnquist to check himself into the hospital in the first place was slurred speech. That's an effect, but hardly one that warrants hand-wringing about the incapacitation of a Supreme Court Justice.

The real story, if there is one, in the drug episode, is about hypocrisy. As a Justice, Rehnquist showed little sympathy for criminal defendants caught up in the war on drugs. Yet he himself was using medication in a way that may have been illegal. If so, that would indeed be a source of concern, but it's not clear that his use of pain meds was illegal. I haven't read the file itself, but according to the NPR story, it's possible that Rehnquist was taking an extraordinarily high dose because the original prescribing physician hadn't placed a limit on refills.

Bottom line: There are many reasons for liberals to be troubled by the impact on American law of William Rehnquist. There is no reason, other than prurient interest, to worry (or worse, to revel in) the fact that he became addicted to pain meds and then had a rough time taking himself off them.