Chief Justice Rehnquist Dies of Thyroid Cancer

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist died Saturday night of the thyroid cancer he had battled for nearly a year, opening a second Supreme Court vacancy just days before Senate confirmation hearings were to begin to fill the seat being vacated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Kathleen Arburg, the court's public information officer, said Rehnquist, 80, had died at his home in Arlington, Virginia, surrounded by his three children. She said he had been working at the court during the summer recess until his health underwent a "precipitous decline" in the last few days.

Although the chief justice was known to be seriously ill with thyroid cancer, which was diagnosed last October, his death at this moment came as a surprise. Six weeks ago, with rumors swirling that he would soon retire, he issued an unusual statement declaring that he would continue to serve as chief justice "as long as my health permits."

His death on the eve of the confirmation hearings for Judge John Roberts, set to begin Tuesday, raised the prospect that U.S. President George W. Bush might transfer Roberts' nomination, making him a candidate for chief justice instead. Roberts was a law clerk to Rehnquist, who was then an associate justice, during the court's 1980 term.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush had been informed of the chief justice's death shortly before 11 p.m. Washington time.

"The President and Mrs. Bush are deeply saddened at the passing of Chief Justice Rehnquist. His family is in their thoughts and prayers," the White House said in a statement.

The chief justice's death also raised the question of whether O'Connor, who announced July 1 that her retirement would be effective upon the confirmation of her successor, might agree to remain on the court in the interim. There is essentially no prospect that two Supreme Court vacancies can be filled before the new court term begins on Oct. 3.

The last time the Supreme Court had two vacancies at once was in 1971, when Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan retired in the face of terminal illnesses. President Richard Nixon then named Rehnquist, who was an assistant attorney general, to one of the vacancies and Lewis Powell to the other. Justice Rehnquist took his seat on January 7, 1972. President Ronald Reagan named him in 1986 to be the 16th chief justice of the United States.

Rehnquist is survived by his three children: Janet Rehnquist, James Rehnquist, and Nancy Spears; by his sister, Jean Laurin; and by nine grandchildren. His wife, Natalie Cornell Rehnquist, died in 1991.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said the chief justice "served his country with honor, dignity and distinction for over 30 years," adding that "he was grounded in his beliefs and was a staunch defender of an independent judiciary."

Rehnquist began his long Supreme Court career on the far right of the court's ideological spectrum. But subsequent appointments by Republican presidents eventually gave him a working majority that permitted him to accomplish many of his goals, including a greater solicitude for states' rights and for the role of religion in public life. He also led the court in cutting back on some of the Warren court's liberal precedents that favored the rights of criminal defendants.

But when the court had an opportunity several years ago to overturn the famous Miranda ruling, which the chief justice had long criticized, he wrote the majority opinion reaffirming the precedent, saying that it had become incorporated into American life.

"The imprint of his gavel has been deep," Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader and Judiciary Committee chairman, said in a statement. "Its impact has been profound. Now it is cemented forever in our history. He leaves behind a legacy as one of the most influential chief justices in our nation's history."

While praising Rehnquist for his contributions, Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said lawmakers would be consulting to gauge how to proceed, given the looming start of Roberts' hearings.

Rehnquist received chemotherapy last fall. But he did not disclose what kind or for how long. Twice this summer, he was hospitalized with fevers.

He died without ever disclosing the type of thyroid cancer that he first noticed when his voice became hoarse in the fall of 2004.

His need initially for a tracheotomy was extraordinary for the standard forms of thyroid cancer. Many experts on the disease who were not connected with his case said they strongly suspected that he had the most aggressive form, known as anaplastic thyroid cancer. Rehnquist seemed to be beating the predictions.

In April, he wrote a thank-you note to thyroid cancer researchers for their efforts, which he said allowed him to resume working in his chambers and at home.