Ailing Rehnquist returns to bench after 5-month medical absence

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was back Monday where many thought he'd never be: on the Supreme Court bench hearing arguments.

Rehnquist, who had not sat for any cases since being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October, looked frail and was slightly hoarse with a high-pitched voice. But he ran the court much as he did before the illness, asking questions and keeping lawyers on time.

At the conclusion of two hours of arguments he struggled momentarily to get out of his chair. Justice John Paul Stevens, who at 84 is the court's oldest member, helped Rehnquist to a nearby railing.

Medical experts said it was a remarkable feat for an 80-year-old to have cancer, undergo weeks of radiation and chemotherapy and then feel well enough to return. However, since Rehnquist has not released details about his condition, they warned against reading too much into his return.

Rehnquist has not said what form of thyroid cancer he has. However, medical experts have said his treatment plan indicated he might have anaplastic thyroid cancer, which typically is fatal within a year of diagnosis. Long-term survival for such patients is only 14 percent.

It is rare for patients with that form of cancer to have any remission or shrinkage of the tumor, doctors said. More likely is that the tumor has stopped growing for now, allowing Rehnquist to build some strength.

When Rehnquist disclosed the illness it immediately prompted speculation the court could have its first opening since 1994. But Rehnquist continued working, often from home. In recent weeks, he has been working at the court regularly and last week presided over a two-hour closed-door meeting of federal judges.

On Monday, Rehnquist left his suburban Arlington, Va., home at 8:30 a.m. Walking stiffly with the aid of a cane, he got into a limousine and was driven to the court.

When the session opened, Rehnquist emerged with his eight fellow justices from behind a curtain, as is the customary practice. He then swore in new members to the Supreme Court Bar.

No mention was made of his illness and none of the other justices said anything to him before the start of the first argument, a case from Colorado in which a woman was seeking to sue her local police department for its failure to prevent her estranged husband from killing her three daughters.

Rehnquist asked a number of questions during the two hours of arguments. About midway through each of two arguments, he stood for a few minutes, apparently to stretch his back, which has been his practice for some time.

In the second case, a lawyer for the state of Ohio stopped his argument suddenly, saying "I see my time is up."

"It is. Thank you," said Rehnquist, a stickler for punctuality.

Richard Garnett, a former Rehnquist clerk who teaches law at Notre Dame, said the appearance shed no light on when the chief justice might step aside.

"While his presence on the bench today was wonderful news for those of us who care about him, I don't think it tells us anything about his retirement plans," Garnett said.

Rehnquist was appointed to the court in 1972 by President Nixon and was elevated to chief justice by President Reagan in 1986. He is the second-oldest chief justice in history. The only older chief justice was Roger Taney, who presided over the high court in the mid-1800s until his death at 87.

Rehnquist last sat for arguments Oct. 13. He had been seen in public only one time since announcing Oct. 25 that he had cancer and then undergoing a tracheotomy to help him breathe. That was to swear in President Bush on Jan. 20.

He has been working from court and home since then, presiding over private meetings of the justices, reading transcripts of the arguments and voting on decisions, but not appearing for arguments.

"Seeing the chief justice back on the bench is a reassuring sign that the Supreme Court is getting back to business as normal as it enters the busiest and most important stage of the term before its summer recess," said Gregory Garre, a Washington attorney and former Rehnquist clerk.

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