Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Of all the Supreme Court justices who resided in our sainted parish (Warren Burger, John Paul Stevens), the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist was probably the best schooled in local history.


I base this on a speech he delivered to the Arlington Historical Society banquet April 27, 2001, to mark the 200th anniversary of the congressional act that established us.


A former Rehnquist staffer assures me that the jurist did his own hometown research. That Rehnquist loved Arlington was also confirmed to me by his friend Herman Obermayer, the late editor-publisher of the Northern Virginia Sun. Obe’s 2009 book (four years after Rehnquist’s death in 2005) evoked their time together at Washington Golf and Country Club playing tennis with other “over 50” conservatives.


But judge the judge for yourself. At the banquet, the justice began on a skeptical note. He quibbled over whether 2000 or 2001 was the bicentennial year, acknowledging that Congress’s new law took effect in 1801, but underlining (as a textualist) that the word “Arlington” appears nowhere in the statute. (Back then we were Alexandria County.)


He recounted how George Washington Parke Custis created and named Arlington House, how Custis’s daughter Mary then married Robert E. Lee, whose later-life decision to fight for the South in the Civil War prompted the home to be confiscated by Union troops. Then there was the matter of Lee’s son Custis challenging federal tax collection policy and going to the Supreme Court in 1882 to win restitution. “This was good news for Lee, who had a good claim to the property, but bad news for the law, since the decision confused the doctrine of Sovereign Immunity well into the twentieth century,” Rehnquist said.


He described the retrocession of Alexandria County from the District in 1846-47, and the subsequent confusion between Alexandria City and county. That lead to the 1920 change to Arlington. “So, if we were to be technical, and insist that an entity be in existence at its birth date, we would have to say that 2001 is not the bicentennial of Arlington County, but the 71st anniversary,” he opined. “But I do not propose to be a specter at the feast, and so I will in effect stipulate that this is the 200th year of Arlington County’s existence.”


Rehnquist said he lacked expertise on why Arlington grew from 1,000 in 1800, to 1300 in 1846, to 57,000 in 1940 to 190,000 in 2001. But one reason was the flight to suburbia.


So we needed bridges: Chain Bridge (eight versions!), the Long Bridge, the Aqueduct and (later) Key, Theodore Roosevelt, Memorial and the four-span “strictly utilitarian” 14th St Bridge.


As early as 1837 Daniel Webster quoted President Andrew Jackson’s wish that a bridge ‘’with arches of enduring granite’’ be built across the Potomac as a symbol of the union of the North and the South.” That became Memorial Bridge in 1932.


Arlington is “a county with many advantages and few disadvantages. A relatively low real property tax rate, many good public schools, an excellent public library are some,” Rehnquist concluded. “Probably the most indisputable advantage…. to employ real estate terminology, is ‘location, location, location.’ If you want to live in an area of mostly single-family residences, many parts of Arlington afford the easiest commute from Northern Virginia into the District of Columbia.”


Four ways our county is helping the invaded Ukraine: The county board Feb. 28 passed a resolution of solidarity with one of Arlington’s sister cities, Ivano-Frankivsk. “We’ve hosted government officials, students, and others from Ukraine, and we cannot sit by and do nothing,” said chair Katie Cristol.


More concretely, former board chair Jay Fisette spearheaded a Facebook fund-raiser for the humanitarian charity Razom Organization, with responses approaching $8,000.


The Ballston pedestrian bridge was officially decked out in blue and yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag. And anonymous Arlingtonians mounted Ukraine flags on eastbound sides of the overpasses over I-66 (since removed by VDOT as against safety rules).