The death this weekend of Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist leaves the nation's high court in a period of instability just as justices prepare for the October court docket. He was an imposing figure whose striped robe and calm stature projected strength.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Rehnquist was known as a collaborator, one who sought cooperation with his fellow justices. He commanded respect and, in recent years, had taken on a more conciliatory tone than he brought to the court upon his appointment by Richard Nixon in 1972.

Knight Ridder newspaper reporter Stephen Henderson said Mr. Rehnquist was a "polite but pointed critic of the court's direction" in his early years as a jurist. Later, the chief justice was cooperative and respectful of the court as an institution and its members as individuals. He gave ground on principle to achieve court majorities and sacrificed to hold coalitions together.

He served the court during a historic shift from progressive legislation and expanding federal power to today's judicial and political conservatism. Whether he led that transition or was just there during the movement will be debated for years to come. There is no doubt, however, that his strength and stability will be missed.

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