Rehnquist Retirement Still Just Speculation

Monday was the last day of the Supreme Court’s term. But it might not have been the last day of the Rehnquist court.

Since 80-year-old Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist announced in October that he was being treated for thyroid cancer, many observers had assumed this term would be his last.

Rehnquist had said nothing to confirm that view. And he said nothing Monday either.

He struggled to read an opinion in court. He paused often to catch his breath, and his voice was faint and scratchy at times.


It took nearly an hour for the justices to read the opinions in the final six decisions of the term, and Rehnquist, as chief justice, spoke last. He was the author of the court’s ruling that upheld the Ten Commandments monument in Texas.

But he read only a few sentences of the decision. He breathes through a hole in his windpipe, and the strain on his voice was evident. At one point, after listing the authors of all the dissenting and concurring opinions, he stopped, smiled and observed: “I didn’t know we had that many people on our court,” prompting laughter in the courtroom.

Moments later, the gavel sounded, and the justices rose and stepped behind the red velvet curtain.

If the chief justice intends to retire, he could issue a statement today when the court hands down routine orders on pending appeals. If not, the retirement speculation may have been wrong again.

-- David G. Savage