Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist left the hospital July 14 and issued a firm statement: ''I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement."
The next morning, he climbed into his wheelchair and, with considerable assistance, made his way to his Supreme Court office.
At 80, Rehnquist is undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer. He has trouble walking and talking. Like all cancer patients, Rehnquist has the right to look forward to a full recovery. At the same time, he should acknowledge that almost anyone else his age, suffering from his disabilities, would be retired.
Can we stop and think before indulging in the euphemism "golden years"? At some point, you're not going to seem polite, you're going to seem sarcastic.
But let's read on. This is an article about Justices staying too long on the Court, and, as you may remember, I'm promoting less polite discussion of the problem of life tenured judges clinging to power. The Boston Globe is duly impolite:
In recent decades, Supreme Court retirements have played out like lab experiments, testing whether people in powerful jobs would retire if they did not have to. The answer, in most cases, has been no.Those who believe they are indispensible, who occupy a position where they purport to be beyond politics, yet manipulate the politics of the next appointment -- these are the people we are forced to trust with the nation's most profound questions of power and freedom.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. remains the role model for all modern justices in legal thinking. Alas, he may also be the role model for never acknowledging the need to retire. Historians still recount how Holmes, at 91, slept through arguments using a stack of law books as a pillow.
Justice William O. Douglas, a passionate liberal, suffered a severe stroke in 1974, his 35th year on the court. But Douglas was determined not to give President Ford, a Republican who had led an attempt to impeach Douglas, the satisfaction of choosing his replacement. According to ''The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court," by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, Douglas allowed himself to be wheeled to the bench in a state of near-total incapacity, while aides struggled to mask the smell of his incontinence bag....
Since most of the court's work takes place behind closed doors, and each justice has a team of clerks, the public rarely sees the full effects of a justice's infirmities. ...
[Thurgood] Marshall and Douglas considered themselves heroes for serving so long rather than have a conservative replace them. But each had a chance to leave gracefully, at a normal retirement age, and have a Democratic president appoint his successor. Instead, they opted to keep hearing cases into their old age.
Rehnquist, too, could retire and have a president of his party appoint a like-minded successor. But he has been on the court so long, he probably doubts it could function without him.