Queen's Court

Judicial Power in the Rehnquist Era

Nancy Maveety

As frequent swing vote and centrist voice, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor helped shape many of the Supreme Court's landmark decisions and opinions under the leadership of William Rehnquist. Indeed, many argue that her overall impact and influence was greater than that of the Chief Justice himself.

Nancy Maveety now takes a closer look at what might justifiably be known as the O'Connor Court, in which the voices of individual justices came to the fore. She describes how policy leadership was subdivided among these eminent jurists in a way that fostered an individualist conception of judicial power. And she explains how this distribution of power contributed to a proliferation of concurring opinions—and, in polarizing issues like Planned Parenthood v. Casey or the Michigan affirmative action cases, decisions that sidestepped precedent-setting principles.

“An excellent, timely, well-researched, and elegantly written book.

—The Historian

“A thoughtful and illuminating book; and it accomplishes what it set out to do, exploring the ways in which the Rehnquist Court—and its most famous swing justice—shaped the Court’s internal norms of judicial behavior. Maveety has identified important changes in the Court’s norms and practices, thoughtfully challenged the claim that OConnor represents a judicial ‘gold standard,’ and illuminated from a new perspective the fundamental jurisprudential problem that lies at the heart of modern American constitutionalism.”

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Maveety's book is the first to look beyond the conventional wisdom that O'Connor's centrism gave her de facto control over a court notorious for its disunity, providing instead a more precise and systematic analysis of her influence. Maveety seeks not only to assign a definitive meaning to "the Rehnquist Court" but also to identify its historical importance for the constitutional order and the conception of judicial power within it—situating O'Connor squarely at its center.

Maveety describes the attributes that distinguish this Court from its predecessors and suggests how O'Connor's five years on the Burger Court foreshadowed her emergence as an accommodationist. Then, as the Court became more polarized under Rehnquist, there evolved the individualized behavior and rule-of-thumb jurisprudence that came to characterize O'Connor's decision making. What resulted were carefully circumscribed decisions like Bush v. Gore or Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that provide fewer precedents for lower courts.

Queen's Court ultimately reveals that the importance of the Rehnquist years extends from the substance of constitutional law to the institutional operation of Court decision-making—and that O'Connor was vital to those changes.

About the Author

Nancy Maveety is professor of political science at Tulane University and in 2007-2008 was a Fulbright lecturer at Shandong University in China. She is author of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Strategist on the Supreme Court and Representation Rights and the Burger Years and editor of The Pioneers of Judicial Behavior.