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Rehnquist Revelations

CBS News legal consultant Andrew Cohen discovers some dark secrets behind the former chief justice.


(AP (file))
There were two big revelations this week about William Rehnquist, the late chief justice of the United States.

The first revelation, that his nomination to the Supreme Court and then to the position of chief justice were laced with political underhandedness, probably come as a shock to no one. Politics, even the politics of judicial nomination, ain't beanbag, as the saying goes.

But the second revelation, that Rehnquist was dependent upon harsh prescription painkillers for nearly a decade while he was on the bench, is truly shocking.

Sixteen months after his death, the FBI earlier this week, at the request of reporters and historians, opened up its Rehnquist file and out poured this fascinating glimpse into the man's inner-world and the inner-world of gritty, take-no-prisoners politics.

We learned in great detail, thanks to the work of Tony Mauro of the Legal Times newspaper, that officials in two Republican administrations, the Nixon Team in 1971 and the Reagan team in 1986, worked to discredit and perhaps even intimidate witnesses who wanted to testify against Rehnquist at his two confirmation hearings.

All of this dark business occurred before the 1987 Battle of Bork, Robert Bork that is, which has become the nasty, vicious landmark by which all subsequent confirmation hearings have been judged. This part of the Book of Rehnquist Revelations makes you shudder at the thought of what must go on these days, when our politicians fight over judges as never before. And it makes those feel-good public confirmation hearings seem even more like a charade.

More cutting to Rehnquist's legacy, however, will be the news that from 1972 until 1981 the chief justice was a drug addict — hooked on a now-discredited painkiller called Placidyl. According to Mauro and the documents, the chief justice may have been taking up to three times the prescribed limit of that medicine in the early 1980s, just before he went to the hospital for back pain.

There, the record says, he suffered from withdrawal symptoms like hallucinations. He even tried to escape from the hospital in his pajamas, an image that will stay in my mind's eye forever. To his credit, the record suggests, Rehnquist by that time had admitted that he had a drug problem.

Would you have liked to have known that about a Supreme Court justice while he was on the bench? I know I would have.

Would you have liked someone in his family, or perhaps his professional family, to have done something about it sooner? I know I would have.

It is scary to think that someone with so much power — the power to shape a 5-4 majority on the highest court in the land — would be whacked out on meds, day after day, for all those years.

Legal historians, you can bet, now will pour over the Rehnquist record for his votes in drug-related cases. And the story will continue for quite some time.

It is a sorry legacy for a man who only a few years ago was being hailed as a symbol of rationale action, calm demeanor and good sense.