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Rehnquist has thyroid cancer surgery

Chief justice expected back on bench next week

Chief Justice William Rehnquist
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Rehnquist has surgery after a thyroid cancer diagnosis.

1972 - Appointed to Supreme Court by President Nixon

1973 - Dissents in Roe v. Wade

1986 - Appointed chief justice by President Reagan

1999 - Presides over President Clinton's impeachment trial

2000 - Writes concurring opinion in Bush v. Gore

2004 -Turns 80; only second justice to do so on court

Mayo Clinic
William H. Rehnquist
Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist has undergone throat surgery after a diagnosis of thyroid cancer, but is expected to be released from the hospital this week, according to the Supreme Court.

Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said the 80-year-old chief justice was admitted to the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland, on Friday, and underwent a tracheotomy Saturday.

Arberg said he is expected to be released from the hospital this week, and to be back on the bench when court arguments resume next week.

Although no more details were released on Rehnquist's specific condition, thyroid cancer is generally one of the more curable forms of cancer. In many cases the thyroid is removed, and the individual undergoes hormone therapy thereafter.

Fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 71, underwent treatment for colon cancer in 1999, and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 74, had a bout with breast cancer that was diagnosed in 1988. (Health conditions of justices)

Rehnquist's previous health problems have included back and knee problems.

He played tennis regularly until he had knee surgery in December 2002. But friends say he uses a daily stroll, circling the Corinthian columns at the high court, to exercise and to sort out thorny legal issues.

Health problems add fire to campaigns

Rehnquist has led the Supreme Court since 1986, when President Ronald Reagan named him to replace Chief Justice Warren Burger.

Rehnquist is one of the most conservative members of the closely divided court. The news of his health problems is likely to shake up the campaign trail because the next president could help tip the balance on the nation's highest court, which now stands in a loose 5-4 conservative majority.

There has also been great speculation over who on the court would be chosen chief justice if that slot were to open.

President Bush, in a debate earlier this month, said he would pick "strict constructionists" to fill any vacancies.

"I would pick somebody who would not allow their personal opinion to get in the way of the law," he said, adding that there would be "no litmus test except for how they interpret the Constitution."

Sen. John Kerry pointed to Bush's previous comments that he wanted "conservative" judges and to the president's appointment of conservatives to key judicial posts.

"The Supreme Court of the United States is at stake in this race. ... The future of things that matter to you -- in terms of civil rights, what kind of Justice Department you'll have, whether we'll enforce the law," he said in the debate.

"Will we have equal opportunity? Will women's rights be protected? Will we have equal pay for women, which is going backwards? Will a woman's right to choose be protected? These are constitutional rights, and I want to make sure we have judges who interpret the Constitution of the United States according to the law."

Throughout his judicial career, Rehnquist has followed the legal philosophy of judicial restraint, which interprets the Constitution narrowly.

Rehnquist believes the only rights protected by the Constitution are those specifically named, and that judges should consider the framers' original intent when making their rulings. He has consistently opposed using the Constitution as a statement of principles to be interpreted by judges or with reference to the prevailing attitudes.

Shortly after President Richard Nixon named him as an associate justice in 1972, Rehnquist dissented in Roe v. Wade (1973), which established that a woman's right to an abortion was protected under a woman's right to privacy.

To reach its result, the Court necessarily has had to find within the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment a right that was apparently completely unknown to the drafters of the Amendment, Rehnquist wrote in his dissent.

Presided over Clinton impeachment

Rehnquist is also a strong supporter of states' rights, believing that matters that can be handled by states should be left to them. In a 1998 speech, he raised concern that the expansion of federal law to deal with issues such as carjacking, domestic violence and parents who don't pay child support could infringe upon federalism.

As chief justice, Rehnquist has had a high level of agreement with his fellow justices. According to The Political Reference Almanac, Rehnquist voted with Justice William Kennedy 92 percent of the time in 1998, and he sided with Justices O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas more than 80 percent of the time. Rehnquist was least likely to side with Justice John Paul Stevens, but they still agreed 67 percent of the time.

In addition to his judicial duties, Rehnquist has written books on the Supreme Court's history and on the impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson.

In 1999, Rehnquist became the second chief justice in U.S. history to preside over a presidential impeachment, that of President Bill Clinton who was acquitted.

All but one of the nine justices is over 65, and many court watchers expect at least one, perhaps as many as four, retirements in the next four years.

The nine current members of the court have been together a decade, the longest uninterrupted span in nearly two centuries.

Rehnquist told an interviewer in 2001 that "traditionally, Republican appointees have tended to retire during Republican administrations." He would not expand on that thought, but it suggested a political realization that presidents should be allowed to replace one justice with another of similar ideology.

Rehnquist, a widower with three adult children, is a Wisconsin native. He is a graduate of Stanford and Harvard universities where he received undergraduate and graduate degrees.

The justice served in the U.S. military from 1943 to 1946 before becoming a law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court during 1951 and 1952. Before becoming an assistant attorney general, Rehnquist practiced law in Phoenix, Arizona, for 14 years until 1969.

CNN's Bill Mears, John King, Barbara Starr and Miriam Falco contributed to this report.

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