Chief Justice Rehnquist Thyroid Cancer Serious

Rehnquist Undergoing Radiation and Chemo (AP)

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist disclosed Monday that he’s undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for thyroid cancer. Rehnquist was expected to be on the bench when the court returned from a two-week break. But instead he issued a statement saying “at the suggestion of my doctors, (I) am continuing to recuperate at home.” Rehnquist was released from a Maryland hospital last Friday after undergoing surgery to have a tube inserted in his throat to help his breathing. The court has released no details about his weeklong stay at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, except to say that he had a tracheotomy. The type of thyroid cancer and its severeity have not been disclosed.

Rehnquist, 80, revealed the cancer diagnosis a week ago, prompting speculation about a court vacancy for the first time in more than a decade. The winner of Tuesday’s presidential election is expected to name one or more justices to a court that is deeply divided on issues like abortion, affirmative action and the death penalty.

I wish the Chief Justice a speedy and full recovery. I do wish that he and a few of his colleagues would have retired a couple of years ago, though. Many of the current Justices are far older than the typical retirement ago for federal judges and risking a turnover of the Court to Kerry appointees in order to hold onto power might wind up very detrimental to the judicial philosophy they’re trying to preserve.

Update (1647): Doctors say Rehnquist treatment protocol may be sign of serious (AP)

The type of treatment Chief Justice William Rehnquist is getting may be indicate he’s suffering from a serious type of cancer. Rehnquist is absent from the Supreme Court today, and released a statement revealing that he’s receiving radiation and chemotherapy for thyroid cancer. Doctors familiar with the disease say that combined therapy suggests that Rehnquist’s cancer is not a kind easily treated.

One expert at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, says the most common types of thyroid cancer can be responsive to radioactive iodine. He says chemotherapy would be used against a more aggressive form. He adds that the need for a tracheotomy to ease Rehnquist’s breathing also might indicate the more serious type of cancer.

Update (11/2 1113): Rehnquist Fails to Return, and Speculation Increases (Linda Greenhouse, NYT) [RSS]

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist disclosed Monday that his thyroid cancer was being treated with both chemotherapy and radiation, and he did not return to work despite his previously announced plan to do so.

A carefully worded statement released by his office shortly before the other eight justices began hearing arguments gave no indication when, or whether, the 80-year-old chief justice might return to the bench.

That silence invited immediate speculation that he would soon retire. The doctors who are treating him have not made any public statements. But medical specialists not connected with his case said his course of treatment strongly suggested that he could be suffering from a rapidly progressive type of cancer that had already spread and might now be inoperable. This would make it unlikely that he could complete the court’s current term.

The statement was an extraordinary development in the closing hours of a presidential campaign in which partisans on both sides have tried to remind voters that the next president could well be in a position to reshape the Supreme Court.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.