Video: Rehnquist: No plans to retire

updated 7/18/2005 1:09:22 PM ET 2005-07-18T17:09:22

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, sick with cancer but determined to remain at the helm of the Supreme Court, returned to work Friday after defiantly squelching retirement speculation with a pledge to stay as long as his health allows.

The 80-year-old chief justice, who is battling thyroid cancer, looked pale but confident as he left his house in a wheelchair for the trip to his office. He spent two nights in the hospital with a fever earlier in the week, and was discharged on Thursday.

“I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement,” the chief justice said in a statement first disclosed by The Associated Press late Thursday and later confirmed by the court.

Rehnquist signaled that he is effectively fighting cancer and his health is strong enough to allow him to preside over the high court for the foreseeable future.

Changing strategies
His presence in the massive marble court building underscored the changed political atmosphere across the street in the Capitol, where senators in both parties had virtually taken Rehnquist’s retirement for granted. Instead, lawmakers swiftly recalibrated their strategies for what now looms as the sole confirmation debate of the summer, to fill the vacancy created by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement.

President Bush has not said when he intends to name a replacement, but has said he wants O’Connor’s successor on the bench by the time the court convenes in October.

Bush has consulted widely with dozens of lawmakers of both parties in the run-up to making his pick. But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky chided Democrats in remarks on the Senate floor Friday, saying they are not satisfied.

“They demand that the president give them the names of the people he is thinking about nominating. They want, in effect, to serve as co-presidents by co-nominating a replacement to the Supreme Court,” said McConnell, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican.

McConnell also said Democratic-aligned outside groups appeared to be in the early stages of an attempt to depict Bush’s eventual nominee as an extremist who would deny minorities, women, the disabled and others their rights. “All I’m asking for is a little bit of civility. Civility and compassion for the man or woman who is soon to be named to be the next justice,” he said.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he, too, hopes for a dignified confirmation debate — but said that was up to Bush.

“What happens regarding a Supreme Court nominee is dependent on the president. From all the indication I’ve gotten he doesn’t want a big battle here and nor do we,” said Reid, who attended a meeting at the White House with Bush earlier in the week and said afterward he wants the White House to let him know in advance the names of court candidates under consideration.

New justice by October?
He also stopped short of pledging to make sure Bush’s selection is on the court by October. “We’re going to try to do everything we can to try to cooperate in that regard. But if it doesn’t happen, Sandra Day O’Connor will still be there,” he said. Her resignation is effective when her successor is confirmed.

Rehnquist’s written statement was the latest surprise in an unsettled summer of court-watching.

The chief justice said he would “continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits.”

Richard Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor and former Rehnquist law clerk, said “the chief justice’s decision liberates the president.”

“The question mark that was hanging over the process is now gone,” Garnett said. “President Bush has fewer impediments in doing what he has said all along he was going to do — nominate a conservative justice in the mold of Justice (Antonin) Scalia.”

Battling thyroid cancer
But Supreme Court historian David Garrow said Bush “has to do something other than a white male appellate judge: whether it is a woman, whether it’s Hispanic, whether it’s someone outside the judicial box.”

Rehnquist has been battling thyroid cancer, and medical experts initially had speculated that he probably had the deadly anaplastic form of the disease, based on the chemotherapy-radiation treatment he began receiving in October. But now that seems less likely.

“The prognosis for that is so poor. Most patients succumb very quickly, within three to six months,” said Dr. Mark Urken, a cancer expert at Beth Israel Hospital in New York.

O’Connor had announced her retirement unexpectedly as the White House, the Senate and outside groups were preparing for the chief justice to leave the court. The White House expanded its list of candidates in looking for a replacement for O’Connor, the first female justice and a moderate conservative.

Dual vacancies might have given Bush the political flexibility to please more than one constituency. Now that just one seat is vacant, Bush is likely to come under intense pressure from his political base to nominate a hard-line conservative.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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