Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, battling thyroid cancer and shrouded in speculation over his potential retirement, was hospitalized Tuesday night for a fever, the Supreme Court said yesterday.
A court spokeswoman said Chief Justice Rehnquist, 80, was taken by ambulance to Arlington Hospital and “admitted for observation and tests.” He remained there late yesterday, although court officials gave no other details on his condition.
It is the second time in four months the chief justice has been taken by ambulance to the hospital. He was taken in for breathing problems for a one-day hospitalization in March.
Court observers had expected Chief Justice Rehnquist would retire at the close of the court’s latest term on June 30. But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 75, announced her retirement first.
In the weeks since, rumors have swirled around whether the chief justice had known of Justice O’Connor’s plans, and whether his own retirement may still be announced this summer.
Justices traditionally announce retirement immediately after the court’s term ends, in order to allow time for the president to nominate a successor and the Senate to confirm the nominee before the start of the next term in early October.
The speculation over Chief Justice Rehnquist has prompted reporters and photographers to stake out his Arlington home in recent days. Asked Friday whether he was going to retire, he reportedly said: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
A Supreme Court police officer went in and out of the house several times yesterday, apparently retrieving personal items to bring to Chief Justice Rehnquist at the hospital, among them his trademark walking cane. He has served for 33 years on the high court. For the past 19, he has been chief justice, the longest tenure of any chief since John Marshall held the job in the early 1800s.
Justice O’Connor’s retirement, meanwhile, set the stage for a fierce political battle over who will succeed her.
Democrats, who have used filibusters to block lower-court nominees by President Bush, say the president should preserve the current balance of the Supreme Court by nominating a successor in the mold of the centrist-conservative Justice O’Connor, who was often a “swing” vote in close decisions. The White House is reported to be seriously considering Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales as a nominee.
The political battle surrounding the nomination process could heat up even more if Chief Justice Rehnquist — long considered the backbone of the court’s conservative majority — announces his retirement.
Treated for thyroid cancer since October, the chief justice underwent surgery last year when doctors implanted a tube in his throat to help him breathe. His voice was scratchy when he returned to the bench for oral arguments after a five-month absence during his recovery.