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Rehnquist urges Congress to end judiciary's ‘budget crisis’

The U.S. Supreme Court opens its 2004-2005 session with death penalty and medical marijuana cases dominating the term.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in December 2003.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

In his annual New Year's Day message on the health of the nation's federal courts, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist asks Congress for help and restraint -- help in getting more money for the federal courts, and restraint in acting on criticism of federal judges accused of judicial activism.

His 18-page message makes no reference to the condition of his own health or future plans beyond a single sentence: "On a personal note, I also want to thank all of those who have sent their good wishes for my speedy recovery." 

The chief justice revealed in late October that he was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer.  After attending the first two weeks of oral argument, he skipped argument sessions in November and December.

The court resumes hearing cases in mid-January.  Rehnquist has not said whether he will rejoin his colleagues on the bench, but he has accepted an invitation to administer the oath of office to President Bush at the January 20th inaugural ceremony.

Rehnquist writes that budget cuts have forced the federal courts to reduce staffing by six percent, even as their workloads grow.  "The current budget constraints are bound to affect the ability of the federal courts efficiently and effectively to dispense justice," he says.

The rising caseload, Rehnquist writes, has imposed a critical need for more federal judges, especially in the nation's courts of appeal.  But he notes that no new judgeships have been established since 1990, and three federal circuits -- the First and Second in the Northeast and the Ninth in the West -- haven't had any new judgeships for 20 years.

As for accusations of judicial activism, he says criticism of judges has dramatically increased in recent years.  And while complaints about judges are as old as the republic, he finds particularly troubling the recent suggestions that federal judges should be impeached when their decisions are "regarded by some as out of the mainstream."

"Congress's authority to impeach and remove judges should not extend to decisions from the bench," Rehnquist says.

It's impossible to know how much of the message was written by Rehnquist himself and how much by his clerks.  But it has the same tone as his previous 18 annual messages, with long references to history and gentle but clear barbs directed at Congress.

Pete Williams is the NBC News Justice Correspondent