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William H. Rehnquist was tapped to be chief justice 19 years ago today, and while conventional wisdom says his combination of age and cancer won’t allow him to stay around for a 20th, some court watchers are not so sure. They point out that he looks better than he had been, is keeping a regular schedule and, maybe most important of all, still loves his work. All that adds up to the possibility — still slim — that he’ll confound everyone and stay put, perhaps for another full term. The Supreme Court has about two weeks left before it adjourns for the summer. Many people who study the Court still say the most likely scenario has Rehnquist stepping down, probably at the very end of the term. That would leave three months for the brutal confirmation battle expected no matter whom President Bush picks as a replacement. But with Rehnquist back working full-time at the Court and even making social engagements, some are scaling back their predictions. Several people with close ties to Rehnquist and other justices say privately that they aren’t sure what he’ll do. “I’m not holding my breath anymore,” said David Garrow, an Emory University law professor and Supreme Court historian. “I don’t think we’re going to have an announcement this term.” The 80-year-old Rehnquist has not given any clues of his plans and, since announcing in October that he has thyroid cancer, has divulged very little information about his health. “My gut tells me he just hasn’t made up his mind yet,” said Indiana University law professor Joseph Hoffmann, a former Rehnquist clerk who attended the chief justice’s annual reunion party for former clerks last weekend. On Capitol Hill, there are whispers in the hallways that Rehnquist might not be ready to step down. White House officials have heard the talk, but are said to be proceeding under the assumption there will be a vacancy. The big question mark is the seriousness of Rehnquist’s illness. Based on the treatment plan of chemotherapy and radiation, it was thought Rehnquist had anaplastic thyroid cancer, a fast-growing form that can kill within months. Dr. Kenneth Burman, a thyroid specialist at Washington Hospital Center, now questions whether Rehnquist has that type of cancer. Burman, who is not involved in Rehnquist’s treatment, said the chief justice may have a less serious type of thyroid cancer, or he may be receiving experimental drugs. Rehnquist could have access to the those medicines through clinical trials in the Washington area. Dr. Leonard Wartofsky, another thyroid cancer expert at Washington Hospital Center, said if Rehnquist has anaplastic thyroid cancer, “he’s still on a downhill course with a very bleak prognosis.” But if he has another type of cancer, like thyroid lymphoma, he could live for years, Wartofsky said. Rehnquist is well aware of the tumult that will occur if he gives the Court its first opening since 1994. A retirement now is preferable to one in the middle of a Supreme Court term, when big cases could deadlock 4-4. The last chief justice retirement was on June 17, 1986. President Reagan announced Rehnquist as the successor to Chief Justice Warren Burger that afternoon. Rehnquist declined to answer most questions that day, including queries about whether he was healthy enough to take the job. He had had chronic back pain and was hospitalized in late 1981 and early 1982 to withdraw from sleeping pills. Rehnquist has more than put such questions to bed, earning a reputation as an efficient manager. Whether Rehnquist steps aside sooner or later, liberal and conservative interest groups are primed for a fight. Rehnquist is probably aware of the activity, and the consensus that he’s ready to leave, Garrow said. “The desire to profoundly spite the consensus of commentators and journalists might contribute to his desire to remain on the bench,” Garrow said. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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