Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s Future on Supreme Court Still Doubtful

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 22, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s Future on Supreme Court Still Doubtful Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
November 22, 2004

Washington, DC ( — Nearly one month after Chief Justice William Rehnquist issued a public statement saying he was hospitalized for thyroid cancer and treated for the disease, the status of his health is still a mystery.

Since announcing his condition, Justice Rehnquist has supposedly continued performing his job at his Washington-area home, though other news reports indicate he has apparently delegated most of his responsibilities to aides and law clerks.

"According to my doctors, my plan to return to the office today was too optimistic," he said in a statement at the end of October. "While at home, I am working on court matters, including opinions for cases already argued. I am, and will, continue to be in close contact with my colleagues, my law clerks, and members of the Supreme Court staff."

Speculation about his future has the nation’s capital in a buzz with many political observers suggesting that his departure from the nation’s high court could come as early as shortly after President Bush’s inauguration.

In fact, some political observers have already pointed to the likely nomination of pro-life Justice Clarence Thomas to succeed Rehnquist as the head of the Supreme Court.

Upcoming events could signal Rehnquist’s intentions.

The Supreme Court is next scheduled to hear opening arguments on November 29 and the annual Supreme Court Christmas party, a favorite of Rehnquist’s, is planned for December 17.

Meanwhile, considerable question remains as to whether the chief judge will be up to the task of swearing in the president at the inauguration, on January 20. If he is unable to perform the ceremonial role, Bush could select another judge or top government official to take Rehnquist’s place.

Should Rehnquist fail to appear at the inauguration, that’s a sure sign he is stepping down, many leading court watchers say.

If Rehnquist retires, Thomas may replace him. According to numerous news reports, Bush has launched an internal review weighing the pros and cons of nominating Thomas to the top position on the nation’s highest court.

A leading White House source told the Drudge Report that Thomas is Bush’s personal favorite pick to be elevated to the Chief Justice position, but that the idea is one of several under consideration.

One concern the Bush administration has is the potential fight over the Thomas nomination.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has already signaled that Senate Democrats would oppose elevating Thomas to the top spot and may launch a filibuster in an attempt to prevent that from happening.

Rehnquist is pro-life and was one of the two dissenters in the Roe v. Wade case that allowed abortion.

In addition to Rehnquist, associate Judges Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who back abortion, are all considered likely retirees over the next few years.

All three are advancing in age, like the 80 year-old Rehnquist, and they have all been treated for cancer. Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest at 84, has had prostate cancer while Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had breast cancer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had colon cancer.

Rehnquist underwent a tracheotomy, a surgical procedure in which a tube is inserted into the throat to aid in breathing.

In Rehnquist’s absence, Stevens is presiding over the nation’s top court.

In 1973, the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion by a 7-2 vote. The current court backs abortion by a 6-3 margin.

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