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."
Several advisers inside and outside the White House said Bush's team had been working on the assumption that Rehnquist would not be stepping down in the near term and had largely discounted much of the media-driven speculation of recent days. "We're always prepared if another vacancy comes up, but we've been working on the vacancy we've got," said a senior administration official who asked not to be named because the White House has kept the nomination process confidential.
Bush continues to study his choices, the official added: "He's still looking at names and trying to come to a decision. There's not a set timetable at this point."
For the chief justice, last night's statement ends an awkward interval during which reporters have camped out near his home in Arlington, watching his comings and goings for any hint of his plans.
The frenzied speculation about Rehnquist's future ebbed and flowed over the past few weeks, punctuated at times by rumors and specific reports as to the time and date he would supposedly announce his retirement.
The anticipation peaked last week even as Bush was flying back to Washington from a European trip and columnist Robert D. Novak was on television predicting that Rehnquist would submit his resignation as soon as Air Force One landed.
At times, Rehnquist seemed to taunt the journalists who had taken up a daily stakeout at his house. When one asked about the retirement rumors last week, the chief justice replied, "That's for me to know and you to find out."
So strong had the expectations of his leaving the court become that several members of the Senate had begun openly campaigning for O'Connor to remain on the court as Rehnquist's successor in the chief justice's chair.
Yesterday, four female senators called on O'Connor to reconsider her retirement, saying in a letter to her that they would support her for chief justice if Rehnquist vacated the position. The senators said they were following up on a similar suggestion made by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Republicans Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine signed the letter, saying they would "strongly recommend to President Bush that he nominate you as Chief Justice." This would make O'Connor the first woman to hold the office.
It was not clear whether O'Connor had seen the letter. She was traveling out of the country yesterday, Arberg said.
Some supporters suggested that Rehnquist must have resented all the very public talk about his future.
"Lord knows we should all take it as a rebuke for the ghoulish death watch that's been going on," Rushton said of last night's statement. "You can certainly understand how the man had gotten tired of hearing about his health on talk radio and in the newspapers."
Rehnquist's thyroid cancer was diagnosed in October, missed much work while receiving treatments in November. He returned to the public eye by swearing in Bush on Jan. 20.
Since then, he has presided at court sessions, appearing mentally alert but physically weakened. He worked regularly at his court office. In recent days, however, he has appeared thinner than he did during this spring's oral arguments.
Part of the reason for the speculation about the chief justice's plans is the mystery surrounding the precise nature of his condition. Thyroid cancer comes in several variants, most of them treatable but some aggressive and usually fatal.
Though outside experts have often surmised that Rehnquist's symptoms and reported course of treatment are consistent with anaplastic thyroid cancer, a form of the disease that leaves most of its victims dead within a year of diagnosis, Rehnquist has neither confirmed nor denied those reports.
But his emphatic statement yesterday lends credence to assessments by some doctors that perhaps his disease is not as aggressive as first suspected.
RehnquistChief Justice William H. Rehnquist leaves the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. He was admitted to the hospital late Tuesday for treatment of a fever. After he returned home, he said he was not retiring from the court.