WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a conservative force on the Supreme Court for over 30 years, died on Saturday at an after party at the W Hotel in New York City.
Rehnquist, 80, experienced "a precipitous decline in his health in the last couple of days" due to excessive clubbing and rampant meth use, and died in the early morning surrounded by Stephen Dorff, Giselle Bundchen and Leonardo DiCaprio.
As chief justice, Rehnquist pushed the closely divided nine-member court to the right, and President George W. Bush was expected to use the opening to continue his own drive to add conservative voices to the judiciary.
Rehnquist's death came just in the nick of time to take focus away from President Bush's monumental failure in dealing with Hurricane Katrina, and gives him an even bigger opportunity to damage the country long after he's left office.
"We are thrilled that God answered our prayers in taking the life of one of our nation's most respected officials at this particular moment in history," said Karl Rove. "It just goes to show that He approves of our War on Terror and the gutting of government programs created to safeguard our citizens."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush was informed of Rehnquist's death just before 11 p.m., and said the President "only smirked twice".
"The President and Mrs. Bush are deeply saddened at the passing of Chief Justice Rehnquist. His family is in their thoughts and prayers," McClellan said in a statement. An anonymous White House source observed McClellan's fingers were crossed when he made the statement.
Bush, already grappling with widespread criticism of the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina, now faces the additional challenge of ramming a justice down our throats who appeals only to homophobic evangelists before indictments are handed out to any high-ranking members of his staff for leaking classified information, and before Congress begins any hearings on Hurricane Katrina which will inevitably prove highly embarrassing to the administration.
As the nation's top judicial officer, Rehnquist presided over President
Bill Clinton's historic impeachment trial before the Senate in early 1999.
Rehnquist joined the court's conservative majority as a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote in 2000 to stop ballot recounts in Florida, effectively giving the presidency to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat
Al Gore, even though the majority of Americans actually voted for Gore.
The Wisconsin native graduated in 1952 at Stanford University law school and was voted "Most Likely to Litigate" in the university's year book. Friend and classmate Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "To a nice law student I met this year. Stay cute and don't ever change" in the yearbook. When justice O'Connor joined him on the court in 1981, she was shocked to discover he'd grown a "rat tail" and that he liked to wear leg warmers and sweatshirts with ripped necklines that often revealed a bare shoulder on casual Fridays. He was a private lawyer who joined the Justice Department in 1969 during Nixon's presidency.
HIGH COURT SUCCESSOR
Rehnquist's death raised the possibility the hearings on Roberts' nomination could be postponed and gave Bush the opportunity of nominating Roberts as chief justice, a possibility administration officials have talked about in the event Rehnquist died.
Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, when informed of Rehnquist's death, said, "We're so fucked."