Chief Justice Rehnquist May Not Retire

Chief Justice Marks Court Anniversary (AP)

William H. Rehnquist was tapped to be chief justice 19 years ago Friday, and while conventional wisdom says his combination of age and cancer won’t allow him to stay around for a 20th, some court watchers are not so sure.

They point out that he looks better than he had been, is keeping a regular schedule and, maybe most important of all, still loves his work. All that adds up to the possibility – still slim – that he’ll confound everyone and stay put, perhaps for another full term.

The Supreme Court has about two weeks left before it adjourns for the summer. Many people who study the court still say the most likely scenario has Rehnquist stepping down, probably at the very end of the term. That would leave three months for the brutal confirmation battle expected no matter whom President Bush picks as a replacement.

But with Rehnquist back working full-time at the court and even making social engagements, some are scaling back their predictions. Several people with close ties to Rehnquist and other justices say privately that they aren’t sure what he’ll do.

“I’m not holding my breath anymore,” said David Garrow, an Emory University law professor and Supreme Court historian. “I don’t think we’re going to have an announcement this term.”

The 80-year-old Rehnquist has not given any clues of his plans and, since announcing in October that he has thyroid cancer, has divulged very little information about his health.

This is all pure conjecture, of course. While Rehnquist has every right to stay on as Chief Justice until they drag him out feet first, I hope he doesn’t. Not only should he pave the way for a like-minded but younger replacement–a prospect that diminishes as President Bush gets deeper into his term and another election looms–but he owes it to the institution not to occupy a post that he’s increasingly unable to fill.

The man has been Chief 19 years and was an Associate Justice for 14 years before that. It’s been a remarkable run. It’s time to hang up the robe, though.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    I’ve been wondering why Rehnquist doesn’t leap to retire when he’s assured of a Republican president and senate. I mean, what if he hung on long enough for the Senate to flip in 2006? (Not that I expect that, but it could happen.)

    Is Rehnquist a little dubious of who might be appointed to replace him? Remember, Thomas, not R., is the gold standard of Republican judgeship these days, and Rehnquist is measurably to the left of him.

  2. McGehee says:

    I would think it’s pretty obvious that’s not why he’s hanging on — unless he’s senile, in which case there’s even more reason for him to retire.

    Rehnquist may not be as conservative as either Thomas or Scalia, but he’s not one of those conservative-hating moderate Republicans who would rather see the post-Gingrich GOP go the way of the dodo bird, either.

  3. Anderson says:

    I was being farfetched, but heck, why won’t he retire?

    Here’s the opposite to my previous: he’s so confident that Bush et al. will pick someone worthy that he doesn’t care if he drops dead in the middle of reading a memo.

    Still, he does seem to find himself terribly indispensable.

  4. McGehee says:

    …why won’t he retire?

    Just a speculation, but I would guess that his work gives him something to focus on instead of his health problems. At that age a lot of ailing men need a reason to get up in the morning that doesn’t go along the lines of, “Another day to suffer meaninglessly through.”