Politics and the court

October 28, 2004

NEWS THAT Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has thyroid cancer has highlighted the important connection between presidential politics and the U.S. Supreme Court. While the court has been little more than an afterthought in a campaign dominated by terrorism, the war in Iraq and the economy, its lasting impact on important issues should reinforce for Americans on both sides of the ideological divide what's at stake in this election.

The current court has not changed in a decade, allowing for one of the most stable periods in the court's history. Justice Rehnquist's Supreme Court career - he became an associate justice in 1972 and was elevated to chief justice in 1986 - underscores the significance of lifetime tenure and the lasting influence that any one justice can have.

The present court has decided many controversial cases by the slimmest of margins; this means that any changes in personnel could have significant consequences for recurring issues such as abortion, affirmative action, capital punishment, privacy rights and the separation of church and state. And, as a reminder that the court is not removed from politics, Justice Rehnquist was part of the 5-4 majority that voted to end the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election.

Now the realities of age and health have increased speculation about possible Supreme Court vacancies during the next presidential term - or even before. Justice Rehnquist, who recently turned 80, is the second-oldest member of the current court, and the fourth to face cancer. With the exception of Justice Clarence Thomas, all of the justices are older than 65. The next president, therefore, could help shape the court for years to come, although there are no guarantees as to how any appointee will vote once he or she takes the bench.

At the moment, Justice Rehnquist seems determined to continue to preside over this term - and, perhaps, several more. Thyroid cancer is generally considered very treatable, and he is expected to resume his normal duties Monday when the court reconvenes.

But this late in a tight presidential race, his illness has made more people think about the court and the kind of appointees that each candidate might choose, if given the opportunity. Sparse details from the court about the chief justice's condition have also contributed to heightened uncertainty about the court's future. Other than saying that a tracheotomy was performed last weekend at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the court's announcement left many unanswered questions, including exactly what kind of thyroid cancer Justice Rehnquist has, how aggressive it is, what additional treatment might be necessary, and how incapacitating the cancer or its treatment ultimately might be.

Such questions should make the future of a court that operates on fragile majorities loom larger in the minds of voters as they choose a president next week.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.