WASHINGTON — Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the second-oldest man to preside over the nation's highest court and its premier conservative figure, is undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer.
Rehnquist, 80, underwent a tracheotomy at Bethesda Naval Hospital in suburban Maryland on Saturday, the Supreme Court announced Monday. It said he expects to be back at work next week when the court will next be in session.
Even so, Rehnquist's hospitalization little more than a week before the election gave new prominence to a campaign issue that has been overshadowed by the war on terrorism. The next president is likely to name several justices to a court that has been deeply divided in recent years on issues as varied as abortion and the 2000 election itself.
Rehnquist, a conservative named to the court in 1972 by President Richard Nixon and elevated to chief justice by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, 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 and has spent time in physical therapy.
The thyroid gland, located in the neck, produces hormones that help regulate the body's use of energy. There are several types of thyroid cancer and it was not immediately known which type affected the justice.
About 23,600 people develop various types of thyroid cancer each year in the United States.
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.
Word of the cancer came in a two paragraph release from the court. It said Rehnquist was recently diagnosed with cancer and that he was admitted to the hospital on Friday. There were no other details about his condition.
Rehnquist has frequently been mentioned as a possible retirement prospect, although he has hired law clerks through June 2006. He turned 80 on Oct. 1, and at a birthday celebration he made no mention of stepping down.
No matter who is elected president next week, a vacancy on the high court is likely during the next presidential term. Both President Bush and John Kerry have avoided describing a litmus test for a Supreme Court nomination, although their differences on abortion are cut along partisan lines. The future of the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion is the most visible symbol of the court's ideological split.
Neither Bush nor Kerry has suggested any names for possible nomination if a Supreme Court seat becomes vacant during the next four years, but they have spoken about judges' approaches to specific issues.
On the subject of gay marriage, Bush said at the Republican convention: "I support the protection of marriage against activist judges, and I will continue to appoint federal judges who know the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law."
Kerry has said he would nominate only Supreme Court justices who support abortion rights, and his campaign Web site says he would name "judges with a record of enforcing the nation's civil rights and anti-discrimination laws."
On Dec. 13, 2000, Rehnquist joined four other Supreme Court justices in reversing Florida's court-ordered recount of presidential election ballots. The majority of the high court determined there was no time to conduct a lawful recount.
That decision resulted in George W. Bush being awarded Florida's 25 electoral votes — and thus the presidency — over Democrat Al Gore.
Rehnquist presided over then-President Clinton's 1998 impeachment trial in the Senate, giving most Americans their first televised view of the chief justice. The previous year, he presided as the court ruled unanimously that Paula Jones could sue Clinton for sexual harassment.
The last vacancy on the court occurred in 1994, and then-President Bill Clinton appointed Stephen Breyer to fill the seat vacated when Justice Harry M. Blackmun retired.
Other members of the high court have also been treated for cancer. Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest at 84, has had prostate cancer. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor had breast cancer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had colon cancer.
Word of the illness comes as the Supreme Court deals with multiple legal fights stemming from the election campaign season. On Saturday, the court refused to place independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader on the ballot in Pennsylvania. The high court has not yet acted on a similar appeal from Nader involving Ohio.
Rehnquist, a widower since 1991, has three children.
Rehnquist has defied retirement rumors, even as some observers wondered aloud whether his conservative legacy — empowering states, limiting abortion and preserving the death penalty — may have run its course.
When he was appointed, Rehnquist was a conservative who had campaigned for presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and Nixon.
Rehnquist quickly became known as the "lone ranger" among his more liberal colleagues at the time, writing stinging dissents in cases upholding abortion rights and busing to desegregate schools.
A series of more conservative judicial appointments by presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush changed the court's makeup. By the late 1990s, Rehnquist was at the forefront of several majority rulings allowing the use of public money for religious institutions and greater government powers for police searches.
Rehnquist was a 47-year-old Justice Department lawyer with a reputation for brilliance and unbending conservative ideology when Nixon nominated him to succeed the retired Justice John Harlan.
It was a period when the court, under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, was beginning a slow journey away from the liberal jurisprudence and civil rights agenda personified by Chief Justice Earl Warren.
"He probably had more of a crusader's attitude when he first got the job, and was writing lone and blistering dissents," Washington lawyer Charles Cooper once said about the justice he served as a law clerk in 1978-79.
Rehnquist's opinions are often simply worded and short, and his courtroom style is dry and brusque. He is known as a stern and efficient taskmaster at the court, and a fierce competitor on the tennis court and at the poker table.
Rehnquist has suffered from a chronic sore back, for which he had surgery in 1995. For several years, he has gotten up to stretch his back at least once during the court's hour-long oral arguments.
Rehnquist has varied interests in history, geography, music and painting. He is prolific author, with books on the Supreme Court's history and on a topic that later became prophetic — political impeachment.
While rulings on social issues, free speech and crime drew more headlines, many lawyers point to the notion of states' rights, or federalism, as the hallmark of the Rehnquist court.
Less combative than Justice Antonin Scalia, less doctrinaire than Justice Clarence Thomas, Rehnquist has been the low-key force behind the court's push for greater states' rights at the expense of federal control.
Rehnquist was in the majority as the court struck down part of the Violence Against Women Act, invalidated the Gun-Free School Zones Act and prevented state employees from suing their employers for various kinds of alleged discrimination.