Rehnquist hospitalized, fueling talk of retirement

Chief justice had fever, remained yesterday for observation and tests

July 14, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, ill with thyroid cancer and at the center of intense speculation that he will step down soon, was hospitalized late Tuesday with a fever, according to a brief Supreme Court statement yesterday that fueled fresh talk of an impending retirement.

Rehnquist, who is 80 and has served 33 years on the Supreme Court, was taken by ambulance to the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington and remained there yesterday "for observation and tests," the announcement from the court's press office said. It did not describe his condition.

President Bush was notified of Rehnquist's hospitalization by Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, after the court's public announcement.

"We wish him a speedy recovery," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Rehnquist's medical condition and future plans have been the subject of widespread speculation for months, since the court announced in October that he has thyroid cancer.

If his ill health forces a retirement soon, the White House would have the chance to fill a rare double vacancy on the high court and potentially influence its rulings for decades.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 75, announced this month that she will retire, and Bush advisers are vetting possible replacements. Speaking briefly to reporters before Rehnquist's hospitalization was announced, Bush said he would consider naming someone from outside the judiciary.

"We're considering all kinds of people - judges, nonjudges," Bush said, noting that his wife, Laura, has suggested a female nominee. His main goal, Bush said, is to nominate "someone who will sit on that bench and interpret the Constitution and not use the bench from which to legislate."

Whether the White House will have a second opening on the court to fill remains unclear.

Rehnquist has given no public clues about his plans. And the court has never disclosed his precise diagnosis, making it difficult even for cancer specialists to assess his prognosis.

The court said last fall that Rehnquist had a tracheotomy and was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy - a treatment regimen that many specialists said suggests that Rehnquist has anaplastic thyroid cancer, which is nearly always fatal.

But Rehnquist's apparently improved health in recent months has led some to reconsider. Dr. Scott E. Strome, a head and neck surgical oncologist with the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said yesterday that Rehnquist could be suffering from thyroid lymphoma, a treatable form of cancer.

Rehnquist was absent from the court's public argument sessions for five months while undergoing treatment. But he continued working from home and his chambers, and returned to the bench in March without comment on his condition.

"One thing that troubles me is, a number of people who have similar conditions are wondering, `How is he doing so well?' and they don't have any information from his doctors," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who closely follows the court.

Tobias said he does not expect Rehnquist to clear the air - leaving the public, and the Bush administration, to wait.

"My sense is, the president is moving so slowly [on nominating O'Connor's replacement] because he is waiting on Rehnquist," Tobias said.

In public comments yesterday, Bush said he is consulting with members of the Senate about the potential nominee and that his decision would not be rushed.

"I fully recognize it's my responsibility to come up with a nominee, and I intend to do so in a ... period of time that will give me time to fully analyze the different candidates and speak to them," Bush said.

There was no word yesterday on whether the fever that prompted Rehnquist to go to the hospital was related to his cancer. Rehnquist was hospitalized briefly in March for doctors to adjust his tracheal tube, but did not stay overnight.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's disease, said he was not surprised that Rehnquist's doctors would take an elevated temperature seriously.

"When you have cancer, they watch your fever very closely," Specter said.

Sun staff writer Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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