The Rehnquist FBI File

A wire story (available here) discloses two disturbing tidbits about the judicial confirmation of the late William Rehnquist, first to be an Associate Justice in 1971, and then to be Chief Justice in 1986. First, it appears that in preparation for both sets of confirmation hearings, the FBI was instructed to dig into the backgrounds of witnesses who were going to testify against confirmation. That might be okay, I suppose, if the FBI routinely did such checks on all witnesses, pro as well as con. We could imagine that the Senate would want to know homw much credence to give various witnesses. But focusing the FBI only on opposition witnesses is a clear misuse of law enforcement.

Second, the files reveal that the FBI was aware in 1971 of the racially exclusive covenant in a deed for a property that Rehnquist owned. That fact wasn't disclosed until Rehnquist's second confirmation hearing, 15 years later, when Rehnquist testified that he had only very recently learned of the provision. But if the FBI knew about it in 1971, it's at least a plausible inference that Rehnquist did too. If so, then he lied during his second confirmation hearing. Absent further details, it's nearly impossible to say anything definitive about what he knew and when he knew it.

Unfortunately, most of the media attention to this story has thus far focused on a wholly different (non)issue: the fact that Rehnquist was addicted to painkillers and briefly became delusional when, in 1981, he was detoxing. It would be a shame if this admittedly salacious but ultimately unimportant detail were to garner all the attention here. Political use of law enforcement is a serious abuse of public power; the fact that a person suffering pain became addicted to his meds is completely understandable.