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Cancer claims chief justice

After becoming chief justice in 1986, William Rehnquist oversaw its conservative shift. His death will ignite another fight over its future.

By wire services
Published September 4, 2005

WASHINGTON - Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died Saturday evening (Sept. 3) at his home in suburban Virginia, said Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg. He was 80.

A statement from the spokeswoman said he was surrounded by his three children when he died in Arlington.

"The Chief Justice battled thyroid cancer since being diagnosed last October and continued to perform his dues on the court until a precipitous decline in his health the last couple of days," she said.

Chief Justice Rehnquist was appointed to the Supreme Court as an associate justice in 1971 by President Nixon and took his seat on Jan. 7, 1972. He was elevated to chief justice by President Reagan in 1986.

His death ends a remarkable 33-year Supreme Court career during which Chief Justice Rehnquist oversaw the court's conservative shift, presided over an impeachment trial and helped decide a presidential election.

The death gives President Bush a second court opening within four months and sets up what could be an even more bruising Senate confirmation battle than that of John Roberts.

It was not immediately clear what impact Chief Justice Rehnquist's death would have on confirmation hearings for Roberts, scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Chief Justice Rehnquist presided over President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in 1999, helped decide the case that settled the 2000 presidential election and fashioned decisions over the years that diluted the powers of the federal government while strengthening those of the states.

Arberg said plans regarding funeral arrangements would be forthcoming.

Bush was notified of Chief Justice Rehnquist's death shortly before 11 p.m. "President Bush and Mrs. Bush are saddened by the news," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. "It's a tremendous loss for our nation."

The White House also issued a formal statement of condolence, calling Chief Justice Rehnquist's death "a tremendous loss for our nation." The president is scheduled to make a personal statement today. The chief justice passed up a chance to step down over the summer, which would have given the Senate a chance to confirm his successor while the court was out of session, and instead Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement to spend time with her ill husband. Bush chose Roberts, a former clerk for Chief Justice Rehnquist, to replace O'Connor.

Chief Justice Rehnquist said in July that he wanted to stay on the bench as long as his health would allow.

The president could elevate to chief justice one of the court's conservatives, such as Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, but some analysts say it's more likely he will choose someone from outside the court.

Possible replacements include Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and federal courts of appeals judges J. Michael Luttig, Edith Clement, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Michael McConnell, Emilio Garza, and James Harvie Wilkinson III. Others mentioned are former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, lawyer Miguel Estrada and former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson.

Chief Justice Rehnquist announced last October that he had thyroid cancer. He had a trachea tube inserted to help him breathe and underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Details of the chief justice's illness and his plans had been tightly guarded. He looked frail at Bush's inauguration in January and missed five months of court sessions before returning to the bench in March.

On the court's final meeting day of the last term, June 27, Chief Justice Rehnquist appeared gaunt and had difficulty as he announced the last decision of the term - an opinion he wrote upholding a Ten Commandments display in Texas. His breathing was labored, and he kept the explanation short.

He had no public appearances over the summer, although he was filmed by television crews in July as he left the hospital following two nights for treatment of a fever.

The closing paragraph of a book Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote on the court's history may stand as his answer to criticism.

Chief Justice Rehnquist noted that the court makes "demonstrable errors" from time to time, but he added, "It and the country have survived these mistakes and the court as an institution has steadily grown in authority and prestige."

Chief Justice Rehnquist, a widower since 1991, mostly sidestepped questions about his legacy in a March 2004 interview. He said he tried to keep the court running smoothly and keep the peace among the justices.

"To get everybody working harmoniously together is not a small feat," he said on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS." "You have to have a very high boiling point."

Chief Justice Rehnquist's grandparents emigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1880 and settled in Chicago. His grandfather was a tailor, his grandmother a school teacher. Chief Justice Rehnquist grew up in Wisconsin, the son of paper salesman and a translator.

He at first had planned to be a college professor, but a test showed him suited to the legal field. In 1952, he graduated first in his class at Stanford University's law school, where he briefly dated O'Connor, the high court's first female justice.

A close student of the Supreme Court's traditions and history, he was a stickler for decorum. He frequently admonished lawyers who did not show what Chief Justice Rehnquist regarded as proper courtesy in the courtroom. His gravelly monotone silenced any who kept talking past their allotted time.

He was the enthusiastic host of an annual, old-fashioned employee Christmas party at the court. At a time when many schools, government offices and private businesses quietly did away with overtly Christian holiday symbols, Chief Justice Rehnquist led the singing of traditional Christmas carols.

Chief Justice Rehnquist has led a quiet social life outside the court. Until recently, he walked daily, as tonic for a chronic bad back, and played tennis with his law clerks. He enjoyed bridge, spending time with his eight grandchildren, charades and a monthly poker game with Scalia and a revolving cast of powerful Washington men.

The only chief justice older than him was Roger Taney, who presided over the high court in the mid 1800s until his death at 87.

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