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Rehnquist Gets Chemotherapy, Postpones Returning to Work

By Linda Greenhouse and Katharine Q. Seelye

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist disclosed on Monday that his thyroid cancer was being treated with both chemotherapy and radiation, and he did not return to work despite his previously announced plan to do so.

A carefully worded statement released by his office shortly before the other eight justices began hearing arguments gave no indication when, or whether, the 80-year-old chief justice might return to the bench.

That silence invited immediate speculation that he would soon retire. The doctors who are treating the chief justice have not made any public statements. But medical specialists not connected with his case said his course of treatment strongly suggested that he could be suffering from a rapidly progressive type of cancer that has already spread and may now be inoperable. This would make it unlikely that he could complete the court’s current term.

The statement was an extraordinary development in the closing hours of a presidential campaign in which partisans on both sides have tried to remind voters that the next president could well be in a position to reshape the Supreme Court. The court has gone without a vacancy for more than 10 years and is closely divided on many important issues. A bitter Supreme Court confirmation fight could serve to reinforce the political polarization that has characterized the presidential race.

Rehnquist spent seven days at Bethesda Naval Hospital, returning home on Friday. While in the hospital, he underwent a tracheotomy to relieve breathing problems, but the clear implication of the statement was that the cancerous thyroid itself was not removed. Removal of the thyroid is the usual treatment for the more common, readily curable for of thyroid cancer. While the chief justice gave no details on his type of cancer, doctors who are not involved in his treatment said the information that he did provide suggested that he has the anaplastic type, which is typically fatal in a relatively short time.