- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, frail from cancer treatments and speaking in a strong but raspy voice, braved the cold yesterday to swear in President Bush for a second term in what might be one of the ailing justice’s last public appearances.

“He’s a tough old bird,” said Neil M. Richards, a former clerk for the chief justice.

Mr. Rehnquist, 80, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October and has undergone a tracheotomy and intense chemotherapy.

He walked slowly down the Capitol steps with the aid of a cane. He wore a black cap to protect his balding head and a gray scarf to help hide the tube that was inserted in the front of his neck to help him breathe.

The microphone picked up the wheezing sound of air blowing through the tube as Chief Justice Rehnquist spoke, but it could not drown out his distinctive, booming baritone.

“He looked like the chief and sounded like the chief,” said Mr. Richards, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “That was such a great sign.”

Rick Garnett, who served as a Rehnquist clerk in 1996 and 1997, said he had “mixed feelings” upon seeing his old boss take part in history.

“When I first saw him come up, I thought it was good to see him up and around,” said Mr. Garnett, who teaches law at University of Notre Dame. “Then I thought about the last time I saw him [in July]. I was in the court having lunch, and he was strong and vigorous.

“It was heartening to see him up there, but sobering to see how difficult things are for him.”

Chief Justice Rehnquist has not appeared in court since revealing his illness. He works on cases and registers his votes from his home in Arlington. His participation in the inauguration had been in doubt, especially after a New York Post story last week that described the chief justice’s eyes as looking “sunken and lifeless.”

Mr. Richards, however, said he was encouraged by Chief Justice Rehnquist’s appearance yesterday.

“You read these things in the papers, and there’s all this speculation about how he would look and how he would sound,” Mr. Richards said. “I thought he looked great. He was walking the way he normally walks. His voice was strong and clear. He looked fit, all things considered. It was a nice thing to see.”

Chief Justice Rehnquist has earned a reputation for hard work since being appointed to the court 33 years ago. A Wisconsin native, he is not bothered by cold weather and snow. Mr. Richards recalled a particularly bad winter storm during which several justices declined to appear at their offices. The chief justice sent some of his staffers out to retrieve them and bring them to work through the snow.

“He’s a very hard-working man and he has a sense of duty, and we saw that today,” Mr. Richards said. “It was clearly important to him to swear in the president as a constitutional function of the office.”

Mr. Garnett said that when he last saw his former boss in the summer he had “no clue” that the chief justice might be ailing. But even while ill, he said, Chief Justice Rehnquist probably can do his job better than many who have held his position.

“He’s really got his job down,” Mr. Garnett said. “He’s very efficient — scarily efficient. He gets legal problems so quickly, he’s able to get his work done even if he’s having to do this other stuff, too.”

Mr. Garnett said he thinks it unlikely that the chief justice would step down from the bench until the term of the court ends later this year.

“I can imagine him thinking that the court is better off with him serving out the term, even if he’s not at full strength, than if they only had eight justices while they were trying to confirm a new one,” Mr. Garnett said.

“If he thought he wasn’t adding value to the court, I think he’d quit,” he said.

Speculation in legal circles has Mr. Bush nominating conservative Justice Antonin Scalia to lead the court after the Rehnquist era ends. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has said he would have no problem with Justice Scalia’s taking over the chief’s position.

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