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Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist expects to be on the bench when the Supreme Court convenes again on Nov. 1, despite his recent surgery following a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. The surprise announcement of Rehnquist’s illness and surgery raises 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. As is customary with the justices – unlike the leaders of the other branches of government-health information was sparse. The only medical news the court released was that Rehnquist had undergone a tracheotomy related to a “recent” thyroid cancer diagnosis. Thyroid cancer specialists indicated that a tracheotomy is an unusual procedure that could mean the cancer is at an advanced stage. “A tracheotomy may suggest the possibility of a mass of significant size, and concern about clearing the airway,” said Dr. Ezra Cohen of the University of Chicago. He added that it is impossible to predict the kind of treatment and overall prognosis Rehnquist faces without knowing more details about the kind of thyroid cancer he has. Calls to Rehnquist’s daughter Janet, a partner in Venable’s Washington office, and his son James, a partner at Goodwin Procter in Boston, were not returned. The chief justice’s wife, Natalie, died in 1991. The court’s terse announcement stating his intention to return to the bench 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 emerged successfully from bouts with cancer. Rehnquist has long discouraged release of detailed medical information about the justices. 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 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.” The Constitution provides no method of substituting or removing justices, ailing or otherwise, except through impeachment.

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