Rehnquist `not about to announce retirement'

Ailing chief justice says he'll stay on bench as long as health permits

July 15, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist sought last night to end the wild speculation about his plans, saying in a statement that he is not planning to retire and would remain on the Supreme Court "as long as my health permits."

"I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement," Rehnquist said in a statement first obtained by the Associated Press and later confirmed by the Supreme Court. "I am not about to announce my retirement. I will continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits."

The statement from Rehnquist, who is 80 and ill with thyroid cancer, was a rare response by a sitting justice to speculation about possible vacancies on the nation's high court. But for the ailing Rehnquist, who in recent weeks has been trailed by news cameras and hounded by rumors, it could bring some relief from the public glare.

For the White House, the announcement that Rehnquist intends to stay in his post adds a measure of certainty to the difficult political calculus as administration officials weigh candidates to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who said earlier this month that she would retire.

The White House has yet to name a nominee for that seat, and many legal and political analysts said officials likely were waiting to see whether there would be two vacancies - an even greater opportunity to shape the future direction of the court.

"The chief justice is doing an outstanding job, and we are pleased he will continue his great service to the nation," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement last night. The White House had no advance notice of Rehnquist's statement, according to the Associated Press.

Senate leaders, who were bracing for the possibility of dual confirmation hearings, were relieved by the news that the focus in coming months apparently would be on a single nominee. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, said his boss had a simple response when he was e-mailed the information about Rehnquist: "Good news."

Rehnquist released the statement - sidestepping the usual process of going through the court's public information office - several hours after he returned to his Arlington, Va., home yesterday after a two-night hospital stay.

The court had announced that Rehnquist was hospitalized at the Virginia Hospital Center near his home with a fever late Tuesday, and he was released yesterday afternoon.

Rehnquist did not describe his condition, and he has never disclosed his precise diagnosis - making it difficult even for cancer specialists to assess his prognosis.

The court announced last fall that Rehnquist had undergone a tracheotomy operation, and he was absent from the court's public argument sessions for five months as he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Many cancer specialists said the medical regimen suggested that Rehnquist has anaplastic thyroid cancer, which is nearly always fatal.

But Rehnquist confounded doctors, and watchful Washington, as his health in recent months seemed to steadily improve. He administered the oath of office at President Bush's second inauguration in January and in March returned to the bench without comment about his absence or his plans.

The speculation, though, was unrelenting. In recent weeks, rumors about possible vacancies on the court reached a frenzied pitch, with news cameras staking out Rehnquist's home each morning when he left for work at the court and each afternoon when he returned home.

Rehnquist did not appear to relish the attention. When a reporter shouted a question to him last week about retirement, he shot back: "That's for me to know and for you to find out." Last night's announcement was expected to cool the rumors.

"This is a useful statement, an honorable statement, from the chief justice," Douglas W. Kmiec, a senior Justice Department official under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said in an interview last night. But he said it does not mean the current White House will not face additional vacancies at the high court in the future.

"It certainly doesn't end the uncertainty, because the uncertainty is embedded in the chief's unfortunate illness," said Kmiec, now a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University.

"So the president will still have to address the matter in time. But I think the White House most assuredly did not want multiple vacancies; that would certainly invite the kind of horse trading that the White House would like to avoid."

Before last night, questions about Rehnquist's future had caused a scramble among interest groups and politicians in recent weeks to prepare for a possible double opening on the high court and its first leadership change since Rehnquist was elevated to the chief justice post by Reagan in 1986. He was named to the high court in 1971 by President Richard M. Nixon.

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