NBC News and news services
updated 3/10/2004 8:06:23 AM ET 2004-03-10T13:06:23

In a rare interview, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist told NBC News that at 79 he's thinking about retirement but he wouldn't say when that might come. Rehnquist spoke to promote a new book he wrote about a controversial presidential election: one in 1876, not 2000. And while he wouldn't comment on the dispute between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Rehnquist did say the lessons learned earlier apply to 2000.

On retirement, he told NBC's "Today" show that “at age 79 you can’t help but think about retirement. Your life expectancy isn’t what it once was. And you’ve got to think about the possibility of retirement.”

Describing his new book -- “Centennial Crisis, The Disputed Election of 1876” -- Rehnquist acknowledged that his epilogue could apply to either election.

"I think you could say it applies to either one," he said of this passage: "... if the result is so close as to be disputed, the final outcome of the election will not be so readily accepted. Those who decide the contest (will) inevitably be subject to criticism by the party whose candidate is the loser."

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Road map to the Supreme Court

A special election commission resolved the tossup 1876 contest. It took the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote in the Bush v. Gore case to end ballot recounts in Florida and effectively call the 2000 election for George W. Bush.

Rehnquist, in the majority in Bush v. Gore, voiced no regrets about the court’s involvement. All the branches of government, he said, must deal with crisis. “It’s a credit to the American system that it came out the way it did,” he said.

Ducks Scalia controversy
Rehnquist refused to weigh in directly on the controversy over Justice Antonin Scalia’s duck-hunting trip with Vice President Dick Cheney while the court was considering Cheney’s appeal in a dispute over private meetings to develop energy policy. Scalia has been asked to disqualify himself from the case.

The chief justice said he would be comfortable ruling in a case involving a friend, like a fellow card player.

“If it were a regular game and that sort of thing, and the only occasion on which I saw the person was at the monthly game, no. No, I don’t think I’d recuse myself,” he said.

Supreme Court age records
Rehnquist is not the oldest member of the court, and he’s not even close to setting a record for longevity.

Justice John Paul Stevens turns 84 next month and despite his age is a spry bridge player and golfer.

Supreme Court justicesRehnquist, known more for his poker and tennis, celebrates his 80th birthday Oct. 1. That would still leave him a decade behind the record-setting justice. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Theodore Roosevelt appointee, served on the court until he was 90.

It’s been almost a decade since the last vacancy on the Supreme Court. A retirement is considered unlikely this year because of the politics that would be involved in a Senate confirmation during a presidential campaign.

Most of the retirement speculation in recent years has focused on Rehnquist, who has had chronic back pain and other health troubles, as well as Stevens and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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