Rehnquist hospitalized for treatment of thyroid cancer
October 25, 2004
WASHINGTON (AP) – Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the leading conservative figure on the Supreme Court for a generation, has thyroid cancer but will continue working while receiving treatment.
Rehnquist, 80, underwent a tracheotomy at Bethesda Naval Hospital in suburban Maryland on Saturday. While no details about his condition were released, a statement issued by the court said he is expected to be back at work next week when justices resume hearing cases.
Even so, Rehnquist’s hospitalization little more than a week before the election gave new prominence to a campaign issue that has been overshadowed by the war on terrorism. The next president is likely to at least one – and likely more – to a court that has been deeply divided in recent years on issues as varied as abortion and the 2000 election itself.
Rehnquist, a conservative named to the court in 1972 by President Richard Nixon and elevated to chief justice by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, sided with the 5-4 majority in the decision giving George Bush the presidency.
The thyroid gland, located in the neck, produces hormones that help regulate the body’s use of energy. There are several types of thyroid cancer and it was not immediately known which type Rehnquist has. Some 23,600 people develop various types of thyroid cancer each year in the United States.
During a tracheotomy, a tube is inserted into a patient’s throat, either to relieve a breathing obstruction or as part of preparation for surgery. The court did not explain why Rehnquist underwent this procedure.
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Two years ago Rehnquist missed court sessions for a month after hurting his knee in a fall at his home. He had surgery to repair a torn tendon. Rehnquist, a smoker, also has struggled with chronic back pain over the years and has spent time in physical therapy.
Rehnquist turned 80 earlier this month, a milestone reached by only one other chief justice. The only older chief justice was Roger Taney, who presided over the high court in the mid-1800s until his death at 87.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush and first lady Laura Bush “wish Chief Justice Rehnquist a speedy recovery.”
Word came in a two-paragraph release from the court, which said that Rehnquist was recently diagnosed and admitted to the hospital on Friday.
Other members of the high court have also been treated for cancer. Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest at 84, has had prostate cancer. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had breast cancer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had colon cancer.
Rehnquist frequently has been mentioned as a possible retirement prospect, although he has hired law clerks through June 2006. On his birthday Oct. 1, he did not mention stepping down.
No matter who is elected president next week, a vacancy is likely during the next presidential term. Both Bush and John Kerry have avoided describing a litmus test for a Supreme Court nominee, although their differences on abortion are cut along partisan lines. The future of the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion is the most visible symbol of the court’s ideological split.
Neither Bush nor Kerry has suggested any names for possible nomination if a Supreme Court seat becomes vacant during the next four years, but they have distinctly different outlooks on court issues.
On Dec. 13, 2000, Rehnquist joined four other justices in reversing Florida’s court-ordered recount of presidential election ballots. The majority of the high court determined there was no time to conduct a lawful recount.
That decision resulted in Bush being awarded Florida’s 25 electoral votes – and thus the presidency – over Democrat Al Gore.
On Monday in Riviera Beach, Fla., Gore referred to the decision and said while he believes it was wrong he respects the court as an institution.
Word also came as the Supreme Court deals with multiple legal fights stemming from the election campaign season. On Saturday, it refused to place independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader on the ballot in Pennsylvania. The high court has not yet acted on a similar appeal from Nader involving Ohio.
The last vacancy occurred in 1994, and then-President Clinton appointed Stephen Breyer to fill the seat vacated by Justice Harry M. Blackmun.
Rehnquist presided over Clinton’s 1998 impeachment trial in the Senate, giving most Americans their first televised view of the chief justice. The previous year, he presided as the court ruled unanimously that Paula Jones could sue Clinton for sexual harassment.
Rehnquist has defied retirement rumors, even as some observers wondered aloud whether his conservative legacy – empowering states, limiting abortion and preserving the death penalty – may have run its course.
When he was appointed, Rehnquist was a conservative who had campaigned for presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and Nixon. He quickly became known as the “lone ranger” among his more liberal colleagues, writing harsh dissents in cases upholding abortion rights and school busing.
Rehnquist was a 47-year-old Justice Department lawyer with a reputation for brilliance and unbending conservative ideology when Nixon nominated him to succeed John Harlan. It was a period when the court, under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, was beginning a slow journey away from the liberal jurisprudence and civil rights agenda personified by Chief Justice Earl Warren.
“He probably had more of a crusader’s attitude when he first got the job, and was writing lone and blistering dissents,” Washington lawyer Charles Cooper once said about the justice he served as a law clerk in 1978-79.
Rehnquist’s opinions are often simply worded and short, and his courtroom style is dry and brusque. He has varied interests in history, geography, music and painting. He is prolific author, with books on the Supreme Court’s history and on a topic that later became prophetic – political impeachment.
Rehnquist, a widower since 1991, has three children.