Rehnquist Says He Has No Plans to Leave Court

By Charles Lane and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 15, 2005

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist emphatically denied yesterday that he intends to step down from the Supreme Court in the near future, as he sought to halt a spiral of speculation about his possible retirement.

In a statement, Rehnquist, who is 80 and suffering from thyroid cancer, said flatly: "I am not about to announce my retirement."

"I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement," Rehnquist said. "I am not about to announce my retirement. I will continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits."

In a sign that the announcement reflected a spontaneous personal reaction to the rising tide of speculation, Rehnquist released the statement through his family, which contacted the Associated Press shortly before 9 last night -- rather than putting out the news through the court's public information office during business hours, as he has done on other occasions.

Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg confirmed the statement's contents to The Washington Post.

The announcement came just hours after Rehnquist had returned home from a two-day stay at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, where he had gone Tuesday night complaining of a fever.

The White House had no notice of Rehnquist's intentions, press secretary Scott McClellan said. "We didn't know before the statement," he said by telephone last night. McClellan added: "The chief justice is doing an outstanding job, and we are pleased that he will continue his great service to the nation."

Although the chief justice denied only an "imminent" retirement, Rehnquist's statement ends the near-term uncertainty facing President Bush, who has been weighing a choice for a successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. O'Connor unexpectedly announced on July 1 that she will retire upon the confirmation of a successor.

Many in Washington had assumed that the White House might be delaying a nomination for O'Connor's seat until Rehnquist clarified his plans.

Last night's statement also appears to refute another popular speculative notion: that Rehnquist had already told the White House of his retirement and was waiting for a prearranged moment to make it public.

Both allies and adversaries of the White House said Rehnquist's statement restores the focus of political activity to the choice of a replacement for O'Connor. "It makes things easier in a certain sense, because it makes it clear this is a process about picking a single justice," said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a conservative group formed to support Bush judicial nominees.

Elliot M. Mincberg, vice president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy organization, said a two-nomination scenario for this summer is now "extremely unlikely."

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