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Without the robe, he blended right in

Published September 5, 2005

WASHINGTON - When I moved to the nation's capital 20 years ago, I lived a few blocks away from Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

My wife and I had an apartment near Rehnquist's modest townhouse in Arlington, Va. We often saw him walking along Glebe Road in his khaki rain hat. He always said hello and offered a friendly wave.

We also saw him at our local grocery store, a dilapidated place called the Lucas Market that served an eclectic clientele of yuppies and poor immigrants.

Other Washington power brokers preferred to shop at the fancy Gourmet Giant in nearby McLean, but not Rehnquist. He would pull up at the Lucas Market in his Volkswagen Rabbit, grab a shopping cart and collect a full load of groceries.

We also saw him at our neighborhood video store. I tried to peek a couple of times, but couldn't see his rentals. I figured him for a Clint Eastwood fan.

His death Saturday night was a reminder that, despite his power, most people did not recognize him. He might have just issued a landmark ruling that affected millions of Americans, but at the Lucas Market, he was just another guy in the vegetable aisle. (I was surprised he bought his veggies there. The store was never known for its produce.)

It was slightly different for Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the court. Posted on the family bulletin board were photos of men who had made threats against him. Marshall's children were told that if any of the men showed up, not to open the front door.

Still, the justice and his family could usually eat at restaurants and shop without being noticed, according to his son, Thurgood Marshall Jr. At the Supreme Court, white tourists once encountered Marshall in an elevator and apparently believed he was the operator. "First floor, please," they said.

Thurgood Marshall Jr. said the lack of recognition is largely a function of TV. Because the court does not allow its sessions to be televised, most people have only seen the justices in photos.

That's in stark contrast to the president, who has so much Secret Service protection that his entourage is known as the "bubble." If President Bush were to go grocery shopping, the Secret Service would have to shut down roads and inconvenience hundreds of shoppers. That's why Bush has someone on the White House staff buy his vegetables.

Congressional leaders are so widely recognized that when Senate Republican leader Bill Frist recently stopped to buy shoes, protesters gathered outside the store to raise a fuss about his support of the president's Social Security plan. The protesters circulated photos and descriptions of the shoes he bought, as if he had done something wrong by buying a nice pair. As far as I could tell, there was no link between his position on Social Security and his choice of footwear.

Rehnquist could buy his shoes without fear. His ability to shop and stroll around Arlington is a reminder that the public knows little about the nation's highest court. Most people can't name more than one or two justices.

The court has refused to televise its sessions on the grounds that the cameras will shatter the decorum of the proceedings. But analysts who follow the court say the justices are also concerned about their privacy. The justices like to shop in peace.

It's too bad they won't televise their sessions. Government should be open when it is conducting the people's business. But I sympathize with the justices' desire for privacy, and I believe it has some benefits. Public officials are more in touch if they do their own shopping. I think everyone should have to buy their own veggies.

Lately, we've heard a lot about John G. Roberts Jr., the nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. And once Bush picks someone to replace Rehnquist, we'll see lots of pictures of that nominee for a month or two.

But once the Senate approves the new justices, it won't be long until they have the same anonymity as Rehnquist and can buy their groceries - and shoes - without being recognized.

--Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or

[Last modified September 5, 2005, 01:16:12]

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