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Rehnquist Returns to the Bench

Thyroid Cancer Kept Chief Justice Away for Five Months

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page A01

The chief is back.

After a five-month hiatus because of thyroid cancer, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist returned to oral arguments at the Supreme Court yesterday, walking under his own power as Marshal Pamela Talkin introduced "the honorable, the chief justice and the associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States."

Unsmiling but seeming less haggard than he did at the Jan. 20 swearing-in of President Bush, Rehnquist, 80, made no special comment to mark the occasion but rather proceeded immediately to his usual recitation of routine court orders, offering the same "warm welcome" to newly sworn members of the Supreme Court bar that he has offered hundreds of times before.


Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist leaves his Arlington home for oral arguments at the Supreme Court. (Manuel Balce Ceneta -- AP)



Once oral arguments got underway, he appeared as alert and informed as ever, peppering lawyers with questions and smiling at the occasional wisecracks of his colleagues during the two-hour sitting.

He left the bench twice, rising and walking behind the red curtains that hang in back of the bench. But that, too, is standard procedure; Rehnquist has been taking short breaks to stretch his back for years.

The only noticeable alteration was in Rehnquist's voice, which sounded as if he had a bad cold. He underwent a tracheotomy in October and is speaking with the aid of a special device in the hole at the base of his throat. He wore his shirt collar open yesterday. Toward the end of the session, he dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief.

The chief justice's illness and prolonged absence from the bench fueled speculation that he could die or retire from the bench at any time, thus triggering a battle in the Senate over whomever Bush nominates to succeed him. But Rehnquist's business-as-usual performance yesterday may prompt some court-watchers to revise previous speculation that his illness might force him to step down before the court's term ends in June.

"It's a very strong personal statement by Rehnquist about how hard he's working to get back," said Richard Lazarus, a professor of law and director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University.

The likeliest scenario is still that the chief justice would step down at the end of the term, Lazarus said, "but the fact that he's back makes it seem at least possible" he could remain beyond then.

Rehnquist's precise medical prognosis remains uncertain. The court has released little concrete information, but outside experts have said, based on the known facts of Rehnquist's case, that he is suffering from anaplastic thyroid cancer, which is usually fatal within a year of diagnosis. The disease was diagnosed in October.

The first of the two cases the court heard yesterday, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, No. 04-278, concerned a Colorado woman's claim that her constitutional right to due process was violated when a town's police officers ignored her pleas to arrest her husband for taking their three daughters in violation of a court's protective order. The husband later killed the children.

The justices generally seemed concerned that upholding Jessica Gonzales's claim would impose too great a burden on the police, and Rehnquist took the lead in questioning her attorney, Brian J. Reichel.

"What process is your client entitled to?" he asked Reichel.

Reichel responded that she had a right to "a good-faith assessment of probable cause" to arrest her husband.


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