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Much of the speculation about Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s health turns on whether he is able to participate in oral arguments on the Supreme Court bench. But another barometer of Rehnquist’s health as he battles thyroid cancer will come Tuesday when he presides over the annual meeting of the Judicial Conference, the policy-making body of the federal judiciary. After a week of conflicting predictions from several sources about whether Rehnquist will attend, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg announced Thursday afternoon that the chief justice expects to preside over the meeting, held at the Supreme Court. The announcement appears to confirm reports from others who have seen Rehnquist recently that, while weak, he is still doggedly determined to keep up with as many aspects of his work as chief justice as possible. Leading the conference is a significant part of the chief justice’s duties, especially so for Rehnquist because of a coincidence of history. Rehnquist was presiding over a Judicial Conference meeting on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked targets in New York and Washington, D.C. After being slipped a note about the attacks, Rehnquist reluctantly dismissed the meeting. He was whisked away to a secure location, and within minutes police sharpshooters were on the roof of the Court. But Rehnquist’s appearance at the Judicial Conference meeting won’t afford the public or press a chance to appraise his health or performance because the meeting will be closed to the public, as has been customary since the group was first created in 1922. The conference, comprised of judges from each of the federal circuits and the Court of International Trade, will hear from Bush Administration and congressional leaders and might also discuss the security provided to federal judges — though that topic, made urgent by the Feb. 28 murder of family members of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow in Chicago, is not on the agenda. Rehnquist’s appearance will be his first non-Court official function since he swore in President George W. Bush on Jan. 20. Since then, Rehnquist has come to the Court for private conferences and has authored several opinions. Rehnquist has not been on the bench since his illness was announced in late October. The secrecy of Judicial Conference meetings is not required by statute, but seems to be etched in its traditions. The judiciary is not covered by open meetings laws such as the Government in the Sunshine Act. Sixth Circuit judge Gilbert Merritt, chairman of the conference’s executive committee from 1994 to 1996, said he never understood why the meetings are secret, except that “it’s always been done that way.” Merritt, now in senior status, says, “I always thought they ought to open it up. I don’t think that anything they do ought to be secret.” Merritt never made much headway with his fellow judges on the issue, though he did initiate the practice of holding a brief news conference after the annual meeting is over to summarize for reporters what went on. That practice has been continued by current executive committee chair Judge Carolyn Dineen King of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who will brief the press after the meeting is over on March 15. In addition to not being able to see Rehnquist, the public also will not see or hear addresses by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. And will the judges discuss improvements in Court security in light of the Lefkow murders? The agenda was set months ago, says David Sellers, assistant director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for Public Affairs, but he says the subject may come up informally if not formally. “Every time you talk to a judge, it’s clear that the subject is on their minds.”

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