Supreme Sorrow

Former clerks including John Roberts carry the casket bearing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's body to the Supreme Court, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005, in Washington. In the two days of ceremony honoring the nation's 16th chief justice, the casket will lie in repose at the Supreme Court where he devoted more than three decades of his life. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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They stood there on the steps of the Supreme Court and with grim faces and a few tears watched their dead friend pass by them in a flag-draped coffin.

For a few poignant minutes Tuesday morning, six of the eight most powerful judges in the world were reduced to mere colleagues, mere mortals, all in varying stages of older age and diminishing health.

The late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's final act at the Court was to remind the nation and the world of the human frailty of the men and women whose orders and decisions cut like steel into the fabric of American life.

Adding to the sense of history and purpose, adding to the irony and the dignity and palpable sense of continuity represented by the ceremony, the man chosen by President Bush to succeed the late Chief Justice was one of his pallbearers. Looking as somber as he did Monday when he was nominated for the top spot on the Court, John G. Roberts, Jr. took hold of his former boss's casket along with seven other former law clerks as they strode up the steps of the Supreme Court.

Each of them seemed deep in thought; each struggling a bit to walk up the same grand marble steps that Roberts spoke so eloquently about that night in July when he was first nominated for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's spot.

No man may be above the law. But that doesn't mean that the law doesn't bring men and women together, in sickness and in health. Roberts first met his boss in good times back in the early 1980s and leaves him sadly like this, nearly a generation later, on the eve of his own accession as the 17th Chief Justice of the United States.

There is a brotherhood and sisterhood in the law that is barely perceptible to those outside of it. And there always has been. Today, on the day that the Chief Justice's body was placed upon the Lincoln Catafalque in the Great Hall of the great Court, those bonds were visible, raw and searing.

Justice O'Connor, for example, dabbed away tears as the body of her old law school friend passed by. She soon will leave the Court herself in order to spend more time with her ailing husband.

Was she thinking of those days long ago at Stanford University when she and Bill Rehnquist met? Was she thinking of the days earlier this year when she announced her own retirement? Was she thinking of how fortunate she was to have left the Court on her own terms instead of the way her friend did? Or was she thinking of all three.

We will never know but I will never forget the image of her today as the reality and the finality of the Chief Justice's death hit her.