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Rehnquist still absent as court returns to work

/ Source: NBC News and news services

Chief Justice William Rehnquist was absent Monday as the Supreme Court met to hear arguments, beginning a second week in seclusion while battling thyroid cancer.

As was the case last Monday, senior Justice John Paul Stevens announced at the outset of the session that Rehnquist, 80, was continuing to participate in court business while recuperating at home.

"The chief justice is unable to be present but will participate in the consideration and discussion of the cases on the basis of the briefs and the transcripts of oral argument,” he said.

Including the cases being argued Monday, Rehnquist has now missed the live presentation for 21 cases expected to be decided by early 2005.

Some observers believe that his continued participation in the cases indicates that no retirement announcement is imminent.

Rehnquist was released on Oct. 29 from Bethesda Naval Hospital after about a week of treatment, which included radiation, chemotherapy and a tracheotomy to help him breathe. He issued a statement on Nov. 1 saying he would work from home as he recuperated, but did not indicate when he might be able to return to the bench.

Some experts have said that the combination of radiation and chemotherapy being given to Rehnquist suggests he may be suffering from an aggressive type of thyroid cancer.

Supreme Court justices serve until they die or retire. The last change in the court's composition took place more than 10 years ago, the longest period of stability since 1823.

As a justice for 15 years and then as chief justice since 1986, Rehnquist has led a conservative legal revolution to expand states' rights, to restrict appeals by death-row inmates and to allow more public funding of religious activities.