- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist returned to the bench yesterday, making his first appearance in the court for oral arguments since being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October.

As he often does during the two-hour sessions, the chief justice, 80, stood at one point and left briefly before returning to the courtroom. He appeared tired, but observers called his return a triumph given his cancer, the news of which set off a derby of debate over whether he would step down and who might replace him.

“I doubt this is going to quell speculation,” said Charles J. Cooper, a Washington lawyer who served as a Rehnquist clerk during the late 1970s.

“But, it should certainly cheer everyone to know that the chief justice is regaining his strength and that his struggle with his ailment is coming along so well that he has returned to work.”

Chief Justice Rehnquist made few comments and did not address his illness, allowing the other justices to dominate the questioning of litigants in cases involving police enforcement of restraining orders and the religious rights of prisoners.

In his 33rd year on the court, he has been chief justice for 19 years, the longest tenure since John Marshall during the early 1800s. He has neither specified the type of thyroid cancer he has nor the treatment he is undergoing, leaving medical specialists to speculate about the severity of his condition.

During the first of yesterday’s arguments, Chief Justice Rehnquist remarked that it may be unrealistic to impose new legal requirements regarding domestic-violence complaints on already strained local police.

Jessica Gonzales of Castle Rock, Colo., is seeking to sue her local police department and the town for $30 million for failing to prevent her estranged husband, who had had a restraining order limiting his contact with the couple’s three daughters, from murdering the girls.

She claims the police department did not take seriously her repeated 911 calls alerting them that her husband had taken the girls from her yard.

Although credited with leading a conservative shift over the past 30 years and protecting the power of the states from the federal government, Chief Justice Rehnquist may be remembered most as one of the five-justice majority that ended the 2000 election crisis and placed George W. Bush in the White House.

A less-mentioned change on his watch involves the number of cases before the court. When he became chief justice, the court was disposing of an average of 170 cases to 180 cases per term. During recent years, the number has dropped to about 80.

In a separate case yesterday, the court heard arguments about whether Ohio prison officials violated a federal law protecting religious rights of prisoners. The case involves former and current inmates who subscribe to four nonconventional religions: Wicca, Satanism, Asatru and Church of Jesus Christ Christian.

The justices are expected to rule this summer on both cases.

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