The Chief Justice Who Had All of His Trial Cases Reversed on Appeal

As noted in this article, there is no requirement that a person has prior judicial experience to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court (or any real requirements, for that matter). While there is no prerequisite of having served as a judge, most members of the Court have spent time as judges at the trial and appellate level before getting tapped to the Supreme Court.

A notable exception to the norm was Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who went straight from serving as assistant attorney general to Supreme Court Associate Justice in 1972. He was elevated to Chief Justice in 1986, having never presided over a trial in his legal career.

Rehnquist would not gain actual trial judge experience until he had already been on the Supreme Court a dozen years. The opportunity arose when federal judge D. Dortch Warriner invited the Chief Justice to preside in the 1984 case of Heislup and Dixon v Town of Colonial Beach, Virginia, et. al.

While it is fairly common for Supreme Court justices to sit on U.S. circuit courts of appeals when dockets become overcrowded, the practice of sitting as a judge at the trial level is rare. The last time it happened was in the 19th century, before the establishment of the federal district and appeals court structure.

Rehnquist presided over the Heislup and Dixon jury trial on June 5 and 6, 1984 in Richmond, Virginia. The case centered around Heislup and Dixon, employees of the Colonial Beach Police Department. They were suspended from their jobs after testifying about an incident in which a Colonial Beach police officer allegedly beat a 15-year-old boy.

Heislup and Dixon claimed that the action taken against them violated their civil rights. They sought $800,000 in punitive and compensatory damages. The jury found in their favor and awarded Heislup $16,000 and Dixon $12,500.

The defendants appealed the decision, arguing that Justice Rehnquist made a mistake in letting the case get to the jury. They maintained that the facts at trial were sufficient to have allowed the Justice to rule in their favor after the presentation of the evidence.

The appeal was argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on June 4, 1986.

Sixteen days later, President Ronald Reagan nominated Rehnquist to be the next Chief Justice of the United States. The Senate confirmed the nomination on September 17, and he was sworn in as the nation’s top judge on September 25, 1986.

Forty-three days later — on November 6, 1986 — the Court of Appeals issued its decision. It ruled that the brand-new Chief Justice of the United States screwed up and made the wrong decision in his first and only time out as a trial judge. The case was reversed in an opinion that tactfully did not mention the name of the judge whose decisions were being overturned.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, presiding over the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

Although Rehnquist would not try his hand again at a civil trial, he did have one other opportunity to preside over a completely different type of trial. In 1999, the House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton and the matter came before the Senate for trial. Under the terms of the Constitution, the Chief Justice presides over such matters. That is why, from January 7 to February 12, 1999, a judge who had a 100% reversal history presided over an impeachment trial of the President of the United States.

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