Rehnquist to swear in President Bush
From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist plans to administer the presidential oath of office in January, despite recent surgery and treatment for thyroid cancer, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said Friday.
The chief justice has, by tradition, sworn in presidents on Inauguration Day, but it was not clear whether the 80-year-old Rehnquist would be able to perform the ceremony because of his health.
Kathy Arberg, spokeswoman for the Court, said Friday that Rehnquist "was invited and agreed to administer the oath."
The invitation came from the White House.
The Court offered no further details about his health or the condition of his voice. Rehnquist was diagnosed with cancer in late October and underwent a tracheotomy at Bethesda Naval Medical Center outside Washington.
He has since been receiving chemotherapy and radiation on an outpatient basis.
Medical experts tell CNN the kind of surgery and treatment Rehnquist had indicates a potentially aggressive form of cancer.
Rehnquist has not attended oral arguments on the bench since his surgery but the Court says he has been participating in cases and other judicial business from home.
His voice was noticeably scratchy when the current term opened in early October, a few weeks before his cancer diagnosis.
Oral arguments resume January 10, but Arberg did not know whether Rehnquist would preside in person.
Rehnquist has administered the oath of office every four years since 1988, two years after he was elevated to the post of chief justice. He joined the Supreme Court in in 1972. He has led the Supreme Court since 1986, when President 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 problem drew extra attention because it came as the presidential race headed into the homestretch and the next president could help tip the balance on the nation's highest court, which now stands in a loose 5-4 conservative majority.
In one of the campaign debates, President Bush said he would pick "strict constructionists" to fill any vacancies.
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.
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.
The nine 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.
A Wisconsin native, the chief justice is a widower and has three children.