Supreme Court Scare

Mon. October 25, 2004 12:00 AM by

Washington, D.C. - The presidential power to appoint justices of the US Supreme Court emerged as a key election issue Monday with word that 80 year old Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is in hospital with thyroid cancer.

Rehnquist underwent a tracheotomy on the weekend. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Court said Rehnquist is expected back on the bench next week.

But, the Chief Justice's health and reports that many as three other justices may be considering retirement has served to illustrate the power of the President in making appointments. Whether the court tilts left or right will be determined in the next four years. Among the cases the court will likely hear are challenges to state constitutions which ban gay marriage.

Supreme Court justices, like other federal judges, can remain on the job decades after the president who chose them. They serve for life or until they choose to retire.

Rehnquist is the longest-serving member of the high court, chosen 32 years ago by Richard Nixon. Stevens is still there 29 years after he was Gerald Ford’s lone Supreme Court pick.

Rehnquist was one of three justices who dissented in the Texas sodomy case.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissent for himself, Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas.

"The court has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda," Scalia wrote.

While LGBT political groups have already sounded a warning about the potential vacancies on the bench and their impact on gay rights issues, the presidential power to determine the nature of the high court largely has been ignored on the campaign trail.

“As a campaign issue I think it’s been almost invisible,” Supreme Court historian David Garrow said last month.

In announcing he and other cast members from Queer As Folk were traveling across the country to campaign for John Kerry, actor Robert Gant said that the issue of appointing Supreme Court justices was a key factor in the election.

Rehnquist has had a series of health problems.

In 2002 he missed several court sessions after hurting his knee in a fall at his home. He had surgery to repair a torn tendon. Rehnquist also has struggled with chronic back pain over the years.

Rehnquist turned 80 earlier this month, a milestone reached by only one other chief justice of the United States. The only older chief justice was Roger Taney, who presided over the high court in the mid-1800s until his death at 87.

by Paul Johnson Washington Bureau Chief
© 2004

This article originally appeared on Republished with permission.