Chief Justice Rehnquist’s Correspondences with Tim O’Brien

March 21st, 2018

In my research into Justice Brennan’s correspondences, I also came across documents from the other Justices, some of which have not yet been made public (to my knowledge). For example, I found letters between Tim O’Brien, then of ABC News and Chief Justice Rehnquist.

Tony Mauro described the infamous incident in the Supreme Court Brief:

Blackman was kind enough to send another batch of letters my way, this one pertaining to a 1987 incident that got then-ABC News Supreme Court correspondent Tim O’Brien in trouble. The Supreme Court press corps was (and still is, mostly) a well-mannered group, but O’Brien was known then as the Peck’s bad boy of the press corps.

In June 1987, O’Brien and a camera person were filming the court’s empty conference room for “b roll” footage for an upcoming story. He glanced toward the fireplace and spotted a crumpled piece of paper that looked like a status report of pending cases.

Almost reflexively, O’Brien fetched the paper and began to read it. “The first thing I saw was 7 to 2, with Brennan writing the opinion in Edwards v. Aguillard,” a high-profile church-state case, O’Brien recalled last week. (That’s how the case actually turned out, by the way.)

The court staffer who accompanied O’Brien registered her disapproval, and O’Brien turned the document over to her. Word spread, and then-new Chief Justice William Rehnquist was said to be furious. O’Brien, who had written stories about several leaked opinions in the past, promised not to use the information.

In a letter found in the Brennan file, O’Brien apologized profusely to Rehnquist. “This incident has left me feeling simply awful,” O’Brien wrote. “I sincerely hope you and your colleagues can accept my apologies.”

Rehnquist, himself a bit of a prankster, responded in a letter. “I most certainly accept your apologies … and I daresay my colleagues will do the same … We live and we learn.”

O’Brien, who still follows the court, said last week, “I shouldn’t have done it. But there was no mens rea. I sometimes have a juvenile sense of humor.”