Poker is a contest in which justice is coincidence and fairness is folly. Interestingly, some of the foremost poker players in Washington D.C. have been members of the United States Supreme Court.
President Taft, the only President to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after his years in the White House, considered the Court to be the higher honor.
He said, "Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever." Taft meant that the decisions of the Supreme Court become the law of the land influencing and affecting how Americans live long after any President.
Taft, too, was a poker player. He loved to play with the principal business barons of his day, including J.P. Morgan, Henry Frick, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an avid poker player, appointed Attorney General Robert H. Jackson to the Supreme Court. Jackson and Chief Justice William O. Douglas were among the President's poker playing pals.
Harry Truman, who succeeded FDR, was also a passionate poker player. The President's good friend and a favorite participant in his games was Chief Justice Fred Vinson. Truman liked to invite a small group to play poker aboard the President's yacht, the Williamsburg. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn was another regular. It was not unusual for President Truman to have all three branches of government represented in his poker games.
In 1968, the country was fed up with the Vietnam War and liberal Democrats. People were ready to embrace traditional, conservative American values. Consequently, Richard Nixon and the Republicans won the White House.
President Nixon was determined to reverse the liberal-leaning Supreme Court. He was able to do so because during his tenure he had the opportunity to appoint four new Justices. Nixon put people he considered legal conservatives on the Court, including William H. Rehnquist in 1971.
President Reagan named him Chief Justice in 1986, a position he held until his death.
After World War II, Rehnquist attended college on the GI Bill. He earned two Masters Degrees, one in political science from Stanford and the other in government from Harvard. Then he entered Stanford Law School and graduated first in his class in 1952.
In law school Rehnquist first got a reputation as a formidable advocate of conservative politics. As a young lawyer, he became a Republican party official and "an outspoken opponent" of liberal legislation.
A traditional conservative, Rehnquist advocated states rights and limited Federal Government. He campaigned for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election and eventually moved to Washington D.C. to work for Attorney General John Mitchell.
Rehnquist was a poker player long before he came to the Supreme Court. For the Chief Justice, as with many great American leaders, poker has proved to be a popular pastime, a welcome diversion from the stresses of the office where the decisions are often life-altering.
Chief Justice Rehnquist's poker group customarily gets together once a month. Justice Antonin Scalia, a friend and fellow conservative, is a regular player. Robert Bork, whose confirmation as a Justice of the Supreme Court was bitterly defeated by liberal Democrats in 1986, is another frequent participant. During the Reagan Administration, the Justices' poker games were occasionally joined by Solicitor General Charles Fried among others. Apparently the games were as conservative as the players. Now a Harvard law professor, Fried recalled in a recent interview that the games were "very small stakes".
Peter Baker, author of The Breach, a behindthe- scenes account of the impeachment trial of President William Clinton, reports that during proceedings the Senate's Sergeant -of-Arms, Jim Ziglar, discovered Chief Justice Rehnquist and his clerks were spending the long, boring intervals between sessions of the Senate playing poker! Describing the scene, Ziglar said there was "money and cards strewn all over the table". He reminded them that the rules of the Senate prohibited gambling.
However, when he returned later, only the money was off the table.
Another participant in Rehnquist's monthly poker games reported, "The Chief Justice really keeps everybody moving fast. If people start telling jokes and talking politics and things like that, Rehnquist says, 'Come on, let's move things along and play poker and stop the folderol'."
Last spring, a controversy erupted when Justice Scalia refused to remove himself from a case before the Supreme Court involving his good friend Vice President Cheney. Scalia had just returned from a much publicized duck hunting trip with Cheney which caused some liberals and Democrats to try to make it an election-year conflict of interest issue.
Justice Scalia didn't feel his social activities colored his impartial judgment. He pointed to the poker games a number of Justices and Chief Justices enjoyed with past Presidents and Congressmen despite potential conflicts of interest over legislative and political issues facing the Court.
In an NBC interview, Chief Justice Rehnquist was asked if he would withdraw himself from a case involving one of his poker buddies. The 80-year old Chief Justice said, "No. If it were a regular game... and the only occasion I saw the person was at the monthly game, no, I don't think I'd recuse myself."
The purpose of the Supreme Court is to make certain the rules of the game are followed. Chief Justice William O. Douglas called the Court the "keeper of the conscience". Hence, it is easy to understand why poker - a democratic game of honor, integrity, wit, and wisdom - has long appealed to Justices of the United States Supreme Court.