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October 5, 2005

The Supreme Court’s Influence on Medicine and Health: The Rehnquist Court, 1986-2005

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliation: Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Md.

JAMA. 2005;294(13):1685-1687. doi:10.1001/jama.294.13.1685

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’s death and Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement concluded one of the most momentous periods in modern Supreme Court history. Justice O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the highest court, was often the “swing” vote in closely divided cases. Justice Rehnquist was the first chief justice to die in office since Fred M. Vinson died in 1953, and this is the first time in more than 30 years that there has been only 7 justices. The Rehnquist Court, with its membership remaining intact from 1994 until 2005, was the most stable Court in history. This period was also one of political polarization, largely due to the Court’s perceived influence on the 2000 presidential election in Bush v Gore.1 The Court decided socially divisive issues ranging from same-sex sodomy, affirmative action, and detention of enemy combatants, to campaign financing and separation of church and state. This article examines the Rehnquist Court’s influence on medicine and health from 1986 to 2005, reflecting on its wider societal impact in 4 areas: reproductive rights, medical privacy, discrimination, and federalism.