The Supreme Court pulsed with retirement speculation Friday, with rumors focusing first on the ailing chief justice, then the oldest member, and even the tiniest justice.
The buzz came one week after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s decision to step down, giving the court its first vacancy in more than a decade.
The 80-year-old chief, William H. Rehnquist, has thyroid cancer. And though he’s been working full-time at the court, he’s noticeably frailer and it’s widely thought he will step down.
Many court observers believed that because of O’Connor’s announcement he would wait until this week to make the announcement. Speculation intensified as the week wore on.
TV news crews and an Associated Press photographer waited in pelting rain for three hours Friday morning for Rehnquist to emerge from his suburban Virginia town house. He eventually did, wishing reporters a good morning. When asked about retirement rumors, he answered: “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” before getting into a waiting car.
The press room at the Supreme Court was filled, a rarity during a time when the court is not in session. And the rumors flew.
E-mails to reporters from various groups speculated when Rehnquist would make an announcement, and also speculated about other possibilities.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who is 85 and healthy, may be going, the speculation went. Stevens is the court’s liberal leader and would seem an unlikely prospect with a Republican in the White House and GOP-controlled Senate.
He also has already started hiring law clerks to work for him in 2006-07. That could be a sign that he’s sticking around for a while. Or that he’s sneaky and wants to keep reporters off his trail.
Next came hints that the real retirement would be that of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the petite opera lover President Clinton put on the bench in 1993.
Ginsburg and O’Connor are the only two female justices in history. Ginsburg, who stands about 5-feet tall, had issued a statement last week lamenting the retirement of her sister justice, saying she “will sorely miss her support and guidance.”
Supreme Court officials had no news for reporters about Rehnquist, Stevens or Ginsburg.
But that didn’t keep the reporters from asking. Every move in and out of the public information office was tracked. Routine paperwork deliveries held prospects of being a retirement letter for the president.
On the Drudge Report, the headline was “Media on standby after growing reports Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist is handing in his resignation … DEVELOPING.”
“Bizarre,” said David Garrow, a Supreme Court historian at Emory University. “Feeding frenzy is overused, but it certainly fits.”
When no Rehnquist announcement had come by late morning, new speculation started that the White House had asked the chief justice to delay making public a decision until Bush returned from an overseas trip. But after stopping by the British ambassador’s residence to sign a condolence book for victims of the London bombing, Bush returned to the White House with no word on Rehnquist.
At a Federalist Society luncheon across town, the future of the court was the major subject. Former Solicitor General Theodore Olson was introduced to a crowded ballroom as someone on the short list of potential nominees. “That list that you were talking about is a lot longer than you think,” Olson quipped.
Rehnquist, a widower who lives alone, repeatedly refuses to answer questions about his future.
“I would bet Rehnquist is thinking it would be demeaning to the office of chief justice to put out a press release saying `I’m not retiring this summer,'” Garrow said.
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