Monday, October 25, 2004

NEWS ALERT: Chief Justice Rehnquist Is Being Treated for Thyroid Cancer

The New York Times
October 25, 2004
Chief Justice of Supreme Court Is Treated for Thyroid Cancer
WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80 and the second-oldest man to preside over the nation's highest court, is undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, officials announced Monday.

Rehnquist underwent a tracheotomy at Bethesda Naval Hospital in suburban Maryland on Saturday, the court's announcement said. It added he expects to be back at work next week when the court will next be in session.

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 name several justices 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, has had a series of health problems.

In 2002 he missed several court sessions after hurting his knee in a fall at his home. He had surgery to repair a torn tendon. Rehnquist also has struggled with chronic back pain over the years and has spent time in physical therapy.

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 affected the justice.

About 6,000 people develop various types of thyroid cancer each year in the United States.

Rehnquist turned 80 earlier this month, a milestone reached by only one other chief justice of the United States. The only older chief justice was Roger Taney, who presided over the high court in the mid-1800s until his death at 87.

Word of the cancer came in a two paragraph release from the court. It said Rehnquist was recently diagnosed with cancer and that he was admitted to the hospital on Friday. There were no other details about his condition.

Rehnquist has frequently been mentioned as a possible retirement prospect, although he has hired law clerks through June 2006. He turned 80 on Oct. 1, and at a birthday celebration he made no mention of stepping down.

No matter who is elected president next week, a vacancy on the high court is likely during the next presidential term. Both President Bush and John Kerry have avoided describing a litmus test for a Supreme Court nomination, 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.

The last vacancy on the court occurred in 1994, and then-President Bill Clinton appointed Stephen Breyer to fill the seat vacated when Justice Harry M. Blackmun retired.

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.

Word of the illness comes as the Supreme Court deals with multiple legal fights stemming from the election campaign season. On Saturday, the court 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.

Rehnquist, a widower since 1991, has three children.

Renquist has been known for his steady discipline at the helm of the court, defying 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.

Rehnquist quickly became known as the "lone ranger" among his more liberal colleagues at the time, writing stinging dissents in cases upholding abortion rights and busing to desegregate schools.

A series of more conservative judicial appointments by presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush changed the court's makeup. By the late 1990s, Rehnquist was at the forefront of several majority rulings allowing the use of public money for religious institutions and greater government powers for police searches.