It is not one of the Supreme Court’s great decisions, but Leo Sheep Co. v. U.S. is Bill Rehnquist, the historian, at his very best.  The 1979 opinion occupies only a dozen pages in the official reports, but in that brief space, then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist brought vividly to life the history of the Old West — and two of the long-forgotten, minor battles of the Civil War: in Arizona and New Mexico, of all places. Those two brief skirmishes, Rehnquist wrote, “doubtless made some impression upon Congress of the necessity for being able to transport readily men and materials into [the West] for military purposes.”  Leo Sheep, of course, was a case about land grants to a railroad, a mode of transport vital to the development of the West.

Rehnquist’s love of history, which later led him to write four books about it, figured prominently in speeches Thursday afternoon in the Court’s Great Hall, filled with admirers who had come for the unveiling of a new marble bust of the late Chief Justice.  Justice John Paul Stevens, who shared the bench with Rehnquist for 29 years, recalled Leo Sheep as one of Stevens’ two favorite Rehnquist opinions.  The other was the opinion that Rehnquist produced in eight days in 1981, deciding the highly complex and historic case on seizure of Iranian assets after the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran (Dames & Moore v. Regan, Treasury Secretary).

Rehnquist bust

The Rehnquist bust, unveiled when two of his grandchildren pulled cords to remove a black shroud, joined those of all of the other Chief Justices, lining the north and south walls of the grand antechamber that leads to the Courtroom.  Congress has regularly provided funds to pay for busts of the Chief Justices — although the current Chief Justice, John G. Roberts, Jr., noted in his remarks that Congress balked for a time at funding a marble likeness of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney out of resentment over his Dred Scott decision — a ruling that also had a link to the Civil War.  (Rehnquist’s bust cost about $50,000, according to the Court.)

The first Chief Justice, John Jay, actually has two busts in the Great Hall.  One was created when the Court was paying for them on its own, and was brought across the street from its place in the basement of the Capitol, where the Court sat before its new courthouse opened in 1935.

Thursday’s ceremony was notable not only for its personal warmth, but also for its brevity — something that federal courts director James C. Duff said Rehnquist would have appreciated.  From beginning to end, the speeches and the ritual took but 24 minutes.  The sculptor who created the bust (for which Rehnquist posed several times), Mark Fondersmith of Ijamsville, MD, took a quick — but deep — bow.

Rehnquist’s son, James, remembered the day in 1971 when his father called him down into the basement of the family’s home to say that the President (Richard M. Nixon) had just decided to appoint two new Justices: Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a Virginia lawyer, “and me.”  James said he reacted: “WHAT?” “Yeah,” his father replied, “can you believe it?”  As James said Thursday, “the rest is history.”

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