Chief Justice Has Thyroid Cancer

Times Staff Writer

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the 80-year-old leader of the Supreme Court, underwent surgery for thyroid cancer over the weekend, less than two weeks before the presidential election that will almost surely decide who would replace him.

Rehnquist was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland on Friday and “underwent a tracheotomy on Saturday in connection with a recent diagnosis of thyroid cancer,” the court said in a statement Monday. He is expected to be on the bench when the court reconvenes Nov. 1, the statement said.

Thyroid cancer is easily cured in most patients, particularly younger ones, when doctors surgically remove the thyroid, a gland in the throat that secretes hormones to regulate metabolism. But some thyroid tumors grow quickly in older patients and are often fatal.


Rehnquist has been hoarse when speaking in the courtroom in the last two weeks.

Several thyroid cancer experts said it was a bad sign that the court’s statement said the chief justice had a breathing hole made in his windpipe, rather than having his thyroid removed. That might suggest that the tumor was too advanced to be treated, they said.

“A tracheotomy is an unusual procedure in the management of thyroid cancer,” said Dr. Jerome Hershman, a thyroid cancer specialist at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “A tumor can encroach on the trachea and narrow the airway. A tracheotomy is done to prevent the obstruction of the airway.”

A tracheotomy helps the patient breath, but it does not treat the cancer, doctors said.

Court officials Monday refused to answer questions about Rehnquist’s treatment.

The chief justice’s hospitalization for cancer aimed a spotlight on the Supreme Court in the closing days of the presidential race.

It underscored the likelihood that the winner would choose a new chief justice.

Some even speculated that it might affect the election’s outcome by spurring more people -- those with strong views on abortion, for example -- to vote.

In recent decades, the justices’ rulings have set law on matters such as civil rights, abortion, school prayer, free speech and the death penalty. Rehnquist, a staunch conservative who is well-respected by his colleagues, has tried to move the court gradually to the right during his 17-year tenure as chief justice.

In 1973, shortly after he joined the high court, Rehnquist dissented in the Roe vs. Wade case when his colleagues ruled that pregnant women had a right to choose abortion, at least until the time a fetus could live on its own. Rehnquist said then, and says today, that such controversies were better left to the states.


As chief justice, he tried and failed to win a majority to overturn the abortion right.

After the 2000 presidential election, Rehnquist led a 5-4 majority that intervened in the Florida dispute over untabulated punch-card ballots. By stopping the county-by-county recounts, the Supreme Court preserved George W. Bush’s narrow victory over Al Gore.

If the chief justice were forced to step down in the weeks ahead, President Bush could name his successor on an emergency basis. But if the president were defeated by Sen. John F. Kerry, the Senate Democrats would almost surely block Bush’s choice from being confirmed as chief justice.

However, if the president wins reelection, he could nominate a new chief justice and be reasonably confident the Senate would confirm his choice.

Even before his illness, Rehnquist dropped hints that he planned to retire soon. He marked his 80th birthday Oct. 1, and said he did not envision serving for another four years.

Rehnquist has had a historic and influential career in the law. Only half a dozen justices have served longer in more than two centuries of the court’s history.

In 1999, he became the second chief justice to preside over the impeachment trial of a president, and he announced President Clinton’s acquittal.


Rehnquist was nominated to the high court 33 years ago this month by President Nixon, and took his seat as an associate justice in January 1972. He came to Nixon’s attention because of his sharp legal mind and his unflinchingly conservative views.

Rehnquist graduated first in his law class at Stanford University and clerked for Justice Robert H. Jackson, the U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

In the early 1970s, Rehnquist established himself as the most conservative member of the then-liberal-leaning court, and in 1986 President Reagan elevated him to chief justice.

The chief, as he is known by his colleagues, has one vote, just like the eight associate justices, Rehnquist likes to point out. However, the chief justice speaks first in all court conferences, and he makes the first picks of the cases the justices will hear among the hundreds of appeals that arrive each month.

Court scholars say a respected chief justice with clear, firm views of the law can lead the court in one direction, and Rehnquist has done that.

Under his leadership, the court has moved to the right on several fronts. It has revived the use of the death penalty, restored support for states’ rights, allowed some tax money to flow to religious schools and limited the reach of federal anti-discrimination laws.


The Bush vs. Gore decision four years ago may prove to be the most memorable of his tenure.

Most legal experts assumed that the Supreme Court would not get involved in the highly partisan dispute after the 2000 presidential election. However, Rehnquist and his colleagues showed no such reluctance.

When the Florida Supreme Court ordered further recounts of punch-card ballots, the chief justice and four of his conservative colleagues voted to take up appeals filed on behalf of Bush.

On a 5-4 vote, the justices ordered a halt to the county-by-county recounts, and they then ruled that any further recount would be unconstitutional.

On Jan. 21, 2001, Rehnquist swore in Bush as president.

If there has been a disappointment in Rehnquist’s career, it is that he has been unable to muster a majority to overturn the major liberal rulings of the 1960s and 1970s.

He steadily opposed the right to abortion, the ban on school-sponsored prayers and the Miranda vs. Arizona decision that limited police questioning of crime suspects. All those decisions stand.


In one ruling, Rehnquist agreed that the Miranda rule was “embedded” in our national culture and it was too late to overturn it.

In the last two years, Rehnquist found himself on the losing end in major decisions, a rarity for him. He dissented last year when the court upheld gay rights and affirmative action, and he disagreed this year when the majority rejected Bush’s claim that the commander in chief could hold “enemy combatants” indefinitely and without giving them a hearing.

In recent years, Rehnquist said he had thought seriously about retiring. He also said he preferred to turn over his job to another Republican. His comments prompted many to assume he would retire in the summer of 2003.

Rehnquist has been friendly with the Bush family, in particular former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. The elder Bush was in office in 1991 when Rehnquist’s wife died of ovarian cancer.

The chief justice has three children, including a daughter and two granddaughters who live near him in Virginia.