Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October, will again not be present when the Supreme Court reconvenes to hear oral arguments on Monday, court officials said yesterday. His absence will apparently continue for at least two more weeks.
"The chief justice does not plan to be on the bench for the session beginning on Monday," said Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg. The session consists of six days -- Nov. 29 through Dec. 1, and Dec. 8 through Dec. 10 -- with two arguments each day.
Rehnquist missed arguments in the first two weeks of November, though he had initially said he could be on the bench during that time.
Yesterday's announcement was the latest indication that Rehnquist, 80, has not yet recovered sufficiently to take up the full range of his normal activities. But the court's terse announcement did little to clarify the precise nature of the chief justice's medical situation -- or to shed light on his future.
His condition is the focus of intense speculation due in part to the possibility that he may have to step down, creating the first vacancy on the court in more than 10 years.
Privately, lawyers who practice before the court express increasing concern that the chief justice's condition may affect the court's ability to work through its caseload.
Rehnquist continues to vote on cases despite not attending oral arguments. At his Northern Virginia home, he and his staff are working on his annual report on the federal judiciary, to be published Jan. 1, Arberg said. Two more milestones on the calendar are the court's annual Christmas party, traditionally organized by Rehnquist, which is scheduled for Dec. 17, and President Bush's Jan. 20 inauguration, at which the chief justice would normally administer the oath of office.
But Arberg said that, along with court business, Rehnquist is taking radiation and chemotherapy treatments as an outpatient.
Such treatments can often be exhausting and painful for cancer patients. Arberg said, "He is tolerating those treatments well."
She declined to say what kind of medicine Rehnquist is receiving, or to comment on the nature of his radiation treatments.
In October, the chief justice had surgery to create a breathing hole in his windpipe. The thyroid is a small gland in the throat.
That and other aspects of Rehnquist's case have caused outside experts in thyroid cancer to suggest that he has anaplastic thyroid cancer, a fast-spreading form of the disease that often kills patients within a year of diagnosis.