Justice Kennedy Has Stent Implanted

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy underwent surgery to clear a blocked blood vessel near his heart during the Labor Day weekend, the court announced yesterday. But the court said there was no damage to his heart and Kennedy has returned to work.

In a news release, the court said that mild chest pains prompted Kennedy, 69, to check in to Washington Hospital Center. On Saturday, surgeons implanted a stent, a metal device used to prop open arteries that may have narrowed because of heart disease.

The court's statement described the procedure as "routine" and noted that it was a "revision" to a previously undisclosed stent procedure Kennedy had last November. Kennedy was released Sunday morning.

That first operation took place at a politically sensitive moment for the court. It was shortly after Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had died of cancer and was succeeded by John G. Roberts Jr.

And Samuel A. Alito Jr. had just been nominated as President Bush's choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, after a turbulent October during which the president's first pick, Harriet Miers, had withdrawn in the face of conservative Republican opposition.

Appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, Kennedy has compiled a mostly conservative voting record but has also voted to uphold Roe v. Wade and in favor of gay rights. Kennedy wrote the court's 2005 opinion striking down the death penalty for offenders younger than 18.

After O'Connor, another moderate conservative, left the court earlier this year, Kennedy emerged as the pivotal swing voter between two four-member blocs of liberals and conservatives.

Yesterday's announcement was the first public acknowledgment that Kennedy has experienced any health problem affecting a vital organ. He had back surgery in 1993 and an eye operation in 1997.

In modern heart surgery, stents are widely used as an alternative to more invasive cardiac bypass surgery, which involves creating new pathways to the heart for blood to flow around blocked arteries.

But in about 10 percent of patients, the stented artery narrows again, a process known as restenosis. In such cases, surgeons must reenter the site and implant a new stent, said Roger S. Blumenthal, a cardiologist who directs the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Preventive Cardiology Center in Baltimore.

That is the likeliest explanation for Kennedy's latest operation, Blumenthal said.

"It sounds like the site they worked on before had narrowed down," he said.

Kennedy's future course of treatment will probably include doses of aspirin and a medicine called clopidogrel to prevent a recurrence, Blumenthal said.

Based on the court's statement, Blumenthal said, it appears that Kennedy's "prognosis is very good."

Kennedy showed no outward signs of illness during recent months, attending all oral arguments at the court as usual, keeping up a full schedule of speaking engagements and, in July, traveling to Austria for a seminar on constitutional law, as he does every year.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company