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Chief Justice William Rehnquist expects to be on the bench when the Supreme Court convenes again Nov. 1, in spite of surgery on Saturday in connection with a recently diagnosed case of thyroid cancer. The surprise announcement of Rehnquist’s illness and surgery came just before noon on Monday, and raised in a concrete way an issue that has been an abstraction during the presidential campaign: the possibility of a departure from the Supreme Court in the near future. Rehnquist, who turned 80 on Oct. 1, has been on the nation’s highest court since 1972 and was elevated to the chief justiceship in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. In a Monday announcement from the White House, President George W. Bush expressed hopes for Rehnquist’s “speedy recovery.” As is customary with the justices � unlike with leaders of the other branches of government � health information was sparse and hard to come by on Monday. The only medical news the Court’s public information office released was that Rehnquist was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland last Friday and underwent a tracheotomy on Saturday that was related to a “recent” thyroid cancer diagnosis. Officials would not say how recently he was diagnosed, why the tracheotomy was performed, or when he is expected to be released from the hospital. [Update: Rehnquist was released from the hospital Friday, Oct. 29.] But thyroid cancer specialists indicated that a tracheotomy is an unusual procedure that could mean the cancer is at an advanced stage. “Most patients present with a pea-sized lump,” said Dr. Ezra Cohen of the University of Chicago, an expert provided by the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “A tracheotomy may suggest the possibility of a mass of significant size, and concern about clearing the airway.” Cohen stressed that he was discussing general principles, not Rehnquist’s specific case. Cohen also said it is impossible to predict the kind of treatment and overall prognosis Rehnquist faces without knowing more details about which one of several kinds of thyroid cancer Rehnquist has. Calls to Rehnquist’s daughter Janet, a partner at Venable in D.C., and his son James, a partner at Goodwin Procter in Boston, were not returned. The chief justice’s wife, Natalie, died in 1991. Since the Court began its fall term on Oct. 4, Rehnquist’s voice when speaking from the bench has been noticeably raspy and hoarse, but Court officials chalked it up to a lingering cold. Rehnquist is a longtime cigarette smoker, though Cohen said that thyroid cancer has not been linked to smoking. Rehnquist has had back problems for years and two years ago injured his knee in a fall, but has shown no interest in retiring. The fact that the Court’s terse announcement states his intention to return to the bench next week suggests that Rehnquist wants to discourage speculation about a retirement anytime soon. Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have also emerged successfully from bouts with different forms of cancer. Rehnquist has a long track record of discouraging the release of detailed medical information about the justices. Not long after becoming chief justice, he became upset during a meeting with reporters when one journalist asked about another justice’s health. The conversation was off the record, but a 1994 book on press coverage of the Court quotes Rehnquist as telling reporters, “You people are really vultures when it comes to that sort of thing.” In late 1981, Rehnquist was hospitalized for his back problems and was also weaned from what doctors would only say was “a degree of physiological dependence” on the prescription painkiller Placidyl. “His reticence did him a certain amount of harm then and could again now,” said University of Missouri-Kansas City political scientist David Atkinson, author of a 1999 book on the health and retirement of justices. Noting that, by contrast, presidential ailments are discussed in great detail, Atkinson said, “This sounds like a serious matter, and if we don’t get more information, I don’t think the public is well served. I don’t know why the Court is so secretive about these things.” Historian David Garrow, who has urged a mandatory retirement age of 75 for justices, said Monday, “We have a system that encourages justices to stay on into their 80s. So nobody should be surprised that this kind of thing happens.” The Constitution provides no method of substituting or removing justices, ailing or otherwise, except through impeachment.

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