As an ambitious young attorney in Arizona, William Rehnquist led a Republican effort to disenfranchise minority voters. Rehnquist has consistently lied about his involvement in the program. Now he has the power to disenfranchise the overwhelming majority of Florida's minority voters who voted for Al Gore.
William Rehnquist Is Unfit to Judge Florida's Recount
by William Ruha
In the early 1960s, Arizona Republican Party members launched a massive effort to inhibit ethnic minorities from voting by making them read English and interpret what they read. The program, given a GOP code-name "Operation Eagle Eye," was eventually abandoned after Arizona legislators changed the laws that had allowed precinct workers to effectively intimidate would-be voters.
However, while the law was on the books, one of the GOP program's key activists was an ambitious 40-year old attorney with an 11-year practice in Phoenix. This attorney sought to recruit other local young Republican leaders to serve in what was then termed the Operation's "flying squads." His name: William Hubbs Rehnquist.
One lawyer that Rehnquist sought to press into service was Charles Tsoukalas, the son of Greek immigrants from Cleveland who anglicized his name to Charlie Stevens. Stevens, who led the local Young Republicans, listened to Rehnquist's arguments that the program was indeed legal, but since the young man's Greek parents had fled Turkey and arrived in America speaking broken English, he declined the recruitment call.
Said Stevens, "I didn't think it was proper to challenge my dad or my mother to interpret the Constitution. Even people who are born here have trouble interpreting the Constitution. Lawyers have trouble interpreting it. It just violated my principles. I had a poor family. I grew up in the projects in Cleveland, Ohio." (1)
Unfazed, Rehnquist went about enacting "Operation Eagle Eye" as a tool to suppress heavily-Democratic ethnic minority votes.
In the 1964 election, Rehnquist so strenuously enforced Operation Eagle Eye that he ultimately engaged in a shoving match with Democratic Party poll watcher Lito Pena. Pena objected to Rehnquist's repeated efforts to prevent ethnic minority citizens from voting in South Phoenix because he knew they would vote Democratic.
Pena states, "He knew the law and applied it with the precision of a swordsman. He sat at the table at the Bethune School, a polling place brimming with black citizens, and quizzed voters ad nauseam about where they were from, how long they'd lived there -- every question in the book. A passage of the Constitution was read and people who spoke broken English were ordered to interpret it to prove they had the language skills to vote." (2)
As Pena recalls, by the time he arrived at Bethune, the voting line was a block long with people standing four abreast. A good number of would-be voters ultimately gave up and returned home. Outraged at this deliberate attempt to disenfranchise voters, Pena told Rehnquist to leave. An argument ensued that soon turned physical. First, the two men engaged in shoving. Then, the tall "Anglo" raised a fist and threatened Pena. Undaunted, the smaller man replied, "If that's what you want, I'll get someone to take you out of here."
Aware that this GOP voter suppression operation targeting blacks and ethnic minorities was in fact a repeat of the Republican Party's well-orchestrated 1962 program, Pena was understandably upset. He retired to a nearby motel to strategize with an assemblage of similarly mistreated and outraged iron-workers.
Shortly thereafter a larger member of this group returned to the polling place, seized Rehnquist, and swiftly dispatched him from the school.
Pena continued his political activism on behalf of citizen rights during his 30 year career as a Democrat in the Arizona State Legislature.
Charlie Stevens prospered as a well-regarded Republican attorney in Phoenix, and eventually became an instrumental figure in helping to launch the legal career of Sandra Day O'Connor, who served as a Republican state legislator before her appointment to the Arizona Supreme Court.
Rehnquist, who sought to recruit Stevens into "Operation Eagle Eye" and whom Pena recalls having had tossed out of the Bethune School polling place, likewise rose to prominence. He now serves as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. And on Saturday, he presided over a case concerning whether each vote for President was properly recorded in the state of Florida.
Rehnquist rose to power after being named by Richard Nixon in 1969 as a new assistant attorney general and head of the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice. In such civil rights cases as Nixon's use of the Army to conduct domestic surveillance, Rehnquist vigorously defended the president, offering advice that the embattled Nixon valued so highly, that he privately called his legal aide as "Renchberg." (3)
But perhaps the moniker derived from another of Nixon's schemes in which he again sought Rehnquist's aid, relying on the ultra-conservative's noted anti-civil rights legal opinions. In 1971, Nixon conspired with aides to have the House Internal Security Committee (the updated HUAC of Nixon's early Hiss-framing days) launch a "spy ring" investigation against his opponents using Republican congressional members of the ultra-right John Birch Society. At one point, Nixon stated, " . . you know what will charge up an audience. Jesus Christ, they'll be hanging from the rafters . . Going after all these Jews, Just find one that is a Jew, will you . . . Rehnquist is a bright fella. He can take charge of this thing." (4)
It was also was "Renchberg" who wrote the defense brief for Nixon's selection of G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court in 1970. Carswell - whose legal decisions had consistently supported his 1948 statement that "segregation of the races is proper and the only practical and correct way of life in our states. I have always so believed and I shall always so act." (5) - was ultimately seen as the racist he was, and rejected by the Senate. A year later, Nixon appointed Carswell's chief defender, Rehnquist to the same position: Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Initially reluctant because Rehnquist was "only the Assistant Attorney General," (6) Nixon recanted and advanced his name only after learning that Rehnquist had clerked for Justice Robert H. Jackson, who had once written a letter back commending a young Nixon for an essay he had written that had been forwarded to him by Nixon's Duke University law professor. Nixon, who was plagued with self-esteem problems, was extremely proud of the letter and it served to trigger Rehnquist's rise to the Supreme Court.
During Rehnquist's 1971 confirmation hearings, much opposition was voiced, based on his alleged association as a Goldwater Republican with various ultraconservative political organizations in Arizona. While regarded as a conservative ideologue, Rehnquist faced more serious problems in that he had written a memorandum while clerking for Justice Jackson that strenuously objected to desegregation. (7) This apparent racist slant was buttressed by testimony and evidence showing Rehnquist's vigorous opposition to the public accommodations section of the 1964 civil rights law. (8)
It was at this point in the confirmation hearings that the "Operation Eagle Eye" matter surfaced. Rehnquist denied personally intimidating voters, offering the explanation that he may have been called to Election Day polling places in order to "arbitrate disputes over voter qualifications." Nixon's appointee, whom at one point he disparagingly referred to as "a clown" (9) was ultimately confirmed on a 68-26 Senate vote.
In 1986, when Warren Burger retired as Chief Justice, and President Ronald Reagan named Rehnquist to replace him, three additional witnesses - including a deputy U.S. attorney - testified that they had been called to polling places where angry voters pointed to Rehnquist as the election official tormenting them. Naturally, the Chief Justice's defenders dismissed the identification as cases of "mistaken identity," the disenfranchised voters apparently having failed to pass this "eagle eye" test as well.
Now, of course, Rehnquist is in the ideal position of being judge, jury, and executioner in administering the "Operation Eagle Eye" standards with the nation's Presidency at stake. He is one of only 9 Americans being asked to read passages of the Constitution and interpret them for the purpose of determining whether the predominantly Democratic ethnic minority votes in Florida's challenged counties will count or not.
Rehnquist's history offers a chief reason why this justice should have recused himself. He did not.
In light of all this, and inasmuch as justices are permitted to discuss their cases at length with each other, it will be interesting to see how successful the zealous ex-Phoenix "Operation Eagle Eye" enforcer will be in recruiting other members into his new updated "flying squad" to disenfranchise the votes of blacks and ethnic minorities in predominantly Democratic Florida counties.
Will the "Rehnquist Court" squad members make "Operation Eagle Eye" fly again?
- William Ruha
(1.) Post Gazette, 12/2/2000 Dennis Roddy, "Just Our Bill."
(2.) Bush Watch, 12/2/2000 "How Rehnquist Earned His Stripes"
(3.) George V. Higgins, The Friends of Richard Nixon, Little Brown & Co. 1974, p. 159
(4) Stanley I. Kutler, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, Simon & Schuster, 1997, p.20
(5.) Stanley I. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990, P.147
(6.) Jonathan Aiken, Nixon: A Life, Regnery Publishing Inc. 1993, p.74
(7.) Stanley I. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990, P.153
(8.) Hebert S. Parmet, Richard Nixon and His America, Smithmark, 1990 p. 609
(9.) Stanley I. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. P.154