- The Washington Times - Monday, October 25, 2004

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist surprised the country yesterday with news that he has been hospitalized since Friday with thyroid cancer. Though Justice Rehnquist underwent a tracheotomy on Saturday at Bethesda Naval Hospital, he is expected to return to the bench next week, according to a statement released by the Supreme Court. Nothing would make us happier than to see him back behind the bench, in good health and full command of the court he has led since President Reagan appointed him chief justice in 1986.

At 80 Justice Rehnquist, first appointed to the court by President Nixon in 1972, is the second-oldest man ever to be chief justice. His time on the court has been well spent. Establishing himself as one of the few conservative justices early in his term, Justice Rehnquist wrote the dissenting opinion in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. As chief justice, he has turned the court in a center-right direction by championing states’ rights, restricting the use of abortion and preserving the death penalty. As such, Justice Rehnquist has earned our respect as a stout defender of the Constitution as it was originally written.

Faithful to his post, Justice Rehnquist has consistently staved off rumors of his imminent retirement, perhaps knowing what a political firestorm such an announcement would cause. Yet since President Clinton appointed Stephen Breyer to the court in 1994, the 10 years that have transpired since represents the longest span during which membership to the court has gone unchanged. No matter how much we would prefer to keep William Rehnquist as chief justice, the hard truth remains that he cannot serve forever.

Nor is Justice Rehnquist the only justice with health problems. As the Associated Press reported, Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg have all been treated for cancer. Not to mention the fact that the average age of the nine justices is more than 70. It is all but certain that whomever is elected president on Nov. 2, he will have at least one Supreme Court appointment to make.

In few areas is a president’s legacy more firmly established than in appointments to the high court. Yet the makeup of the Supreme Court is rarely a top priority for voters at election time. With Justice Rehnquist’s illness on their minds, voters should well consider what kind of justices either President Bush or Mr. Kerry would likely appoint.



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