WASHINGTON (AP) — Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s
hospitalization for cancer brings with it the prospect of the first
Supreme Court vacancy in a decade and is prompting speculation
about who might take his place.
Rehnquist has been the court’s conservative anchor for a
generation. Even before his thyroid cancer diagnosis, most believed
the 80-year-old would step down in the next presidential term.
The illness could speed that up, possibly even before the end of
the Supreme Court’s current term next summer. If Rehnquist
retires, whoever wins the presidential election would pick the next
leader of the court.
“Since it’s the chief justice who’s ill, it
suggests that conservatives have more to lose than liberals,”
said Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor and legal
adviser for the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
The Supreme Court had no more information yesterday on
Rehnquist’s cancer, which was announced Monday in a brief
statement. The type of cancer, how advanced it is and
Rehnquist’s prognosis have not been disclosed, though the
statement said the chief justice is expected on the bench when the
court returns Monday.
The court said Rehnquist underwent a tracheotomy over the
weekend at a hospital outside Washington as part of his cancer
treatment. Yosef Krespi, chairman of otolaryngology at St.
Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, said only aggressive
or complicated thyroid cancers require a tracheotomy.
The court is weighted with more conservatives than liberals
— but barely. Many of the closest cases, like the 2000 Bush
v. Gore decision that gave Bush the presidency, are decided on 5-4
If Bush wins, and Republicans keep their narrow control of the
Senate, a Rehnquist retirement would give Bush the opportunity to
promote a sitting justice to chief justice, and put a new face on
Three of the court’s conservative members would be good
prospects: Sandra Day O’Connor, Clarence Thomas and Anthony
Kennedy. While Thomas would be Bush’s preferred candidate,
the confirmation likely would be at least as brutal as in 1991 when
Thomas was nominated by Bush’s father and barely survived
accusations of sexual harassment.