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Rehnquist Health Prompts Talk of Supreme Court Future

Chief Justice William Rehnquist was absent again as the U.S. Supreme Court resumed hearing oral arguments. Justice Rehnquist is working from home during his treatment for thyroid cancer and his absence from the high court is prompting speculation that he may step down soon.

The 80-year-old chief justice has been working from home since he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October. Although he takes part in the private conferences with other Supreme Court justices, Justice Rehnquist has not attended any oral arguments since he began treatment for his illness.

His last public appearance came at President Bush's second inauguration on January 20. Justice Rehnquist administered the presidential oath of office in a raspy voice that is the result of his cancer treatments.

REHNQUIST: "Repeat after me. I, George Walker Bush."

BUSH: "I, George Walker Bush."

RENHNQUIST: "Do solemnly swear."

BUSH: "Do solemnly swear."

Mr. Rehnquist's age and extended illness continue to prompt speculation that he may step down at the end of the high court's term in June. The New York Times reports Bush administration officials are preparing for that possibility by putting together a list of potential replacements.

Professor Stephen Wermiel is a close observer of the Supreme Court at American University's Washington College of Law.

"One presumes that if Rehnquist is so sick that he really cannot come back on the bench, that he is going to need to retire and that that would most logically happen at the end of the term," said Stephen Wermiel. "He might announce it sooner than that and stay until the end or he might actually wait until the end of the term and announce it."

It has been more than 10 years since the last Supreme Court vacancy and, if one does occur, President Bush will have to decide whether to elevate one of the current justices to the position of chief justice or nominate an outsider.

Supreme Court appointments require Senate confirmation and opposition Democrats have already indicated that any attempt by the administration to nominate a staunch conservative to the high court could spark a major political battle.

Justice Rehnquist has given little public indication of his intentions. In fact, Supreme Court justices rarely grant interviews and when they do, they usually do not discuss specific cases.

Mr. Rehnquist did tell the C-SPAN public affairs network a few years ago that he has enjoyed his tenure as chief justice.

"Yes, I do," said William Rehnquist. "I would not want to hold it forever. But I have enjoyed it a great deal during the time I have had it."

William Rehnquist was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1972 by President Richard Nixon. He was elevated to the position of chief justice by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

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