Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said last night that despite persistent rumors and mounting speculation based on his poor health, he is not on the verge of retiring.
“I’m not about to announce my retirement,” the 80-year-old jurist said in a statement released yesterday shortly after he was discharged from an Arlington hospital where he had been treated for two days for a fever.
“I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement,” he said in the brief statement. “I will continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits.”
Chief Justice Rehnquist underwent a tracheotomy last year as part of treatment for thyroid cancer. Ever since, he has been the subject of continuous retirement speculation.
As the last court session drew to a close last month, however, speculation about Chief Justice Rehnquist exploded. When Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement last month, some court watchers were surprised and many surmised that it was only a matter of time before Chief Justice Rehnquist, too, would announce his retirement.
The two sides in the massive fight over filling vacancies on the federal courts braced for two vacancies and put their supporters and financial backers on red alert. Speculation reached a fever pitch early last week when columnist Robert Novak reported confidently that Chief Justice Rehnquist would retire before the week’s end.
When no announcement had come by midday Friday, Mr. Novak said on national television that Justice Rehnquist was waiting for Air Force One — carrying President Bush home from the Group of Eight summit in Britain — to touch down at Andrews Air Force Base before making the announcement public.
Several TV news stations carried Mr. Bush’s landing Friday afternoon live, but no retirement came.
When asked about his plans later Friday evening, Justice Rehnquist tartly told reporters keeping vigil outside his Arlington home: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
Many then speculated that Monday morning would bring the retirement announcement and a full-scale judicial war over a double vacancy on the high court. Last night’s statement from the chief justice, however, puts to rest those rumors.
The announcement ends “the silly game of uninformed speculation about the chief justice’s health,” said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a lobby group for conservative judicial nominees.
After Justice Rehnquist’s statement last night, the White House said that Mr. Bush had not been informed in advance about the statement but that it brought welcomed the news.
“The chief justice is doing an outstanding job,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “We are pleased he will continue his great service to the nation.”
Chief Justice Rehnquist has been on the court for 33 years, 19 of them as chief justice, the longest tenure of anyone in that post since John Marshall in the early 1800s.
Both sides of the imminent battle over replacing Justice O’Connor sheathed their partisan swords to offer kind tributes to the chief justice.
“We’re happy to hear the good news that Chief Justice Rehnquist is able to remain on the court,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way. “While we strongly disagree with his judicial philosophy, we have long admired his love of the court and his personal courage.”
Mr. Rushton also saw the announcement as good news.
“This allows President Bush to turn his full attention to the serious business of replacing Justice O’Connor with a principled constitutionalist,” he said. “It puts to rest the rhetoric of an immediate, sweeping overhaul of the court.”