Book Excerpt: 'Supreme Conflict'


None of them truly knew just how sick Rehnquist was. The previous October, doctors had diagnosed him with anaplastic thyroid cancer, the most serious and aggressive form of thyroid cancer. They'd performed a tracheostomy, an operation to make a permanent opening in his throat so he could breathe and eat when the chemotherapy and radiation swelled it shut. Rehnquist did not disclose any details publicly, nor did he make public the grave prognosis his doctors had given him. A younger man, doctors told Rehnquist in the hospital after his diagnosis in October, would have less than a year to live. He'd have perhaps half that.

On that June morning, Rehnquist, who loved to put down a one dollar bet on almost anything -- the amount of snowfall, a football game, a congressional election -- had already beaten his odds.

The atmosphere in the courtroom grew tense as the Court turned to the last two cases of the term. Both dealt with whether the Ten Commandments could be displayed on public property. The question had generated enormous controversy across the nation. In Alabama, the state's chief justice had been kicked out of office when he refused to remove a large display from his courthouse. The justices had struggled mightily with these decisions before splitting the difference. They approved a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol in part because it was displayed with dozens of other markers. But they ruled the display unconstitutional in a Kentucky courtroom, where it appeared to take center stage.

Rehnquist announced his opinion in the Texas case, and he struggled to provide even the briefest of summaries. Unable to eat because of his cancer, he'd become thin and stooped, and his skin appeared gray. His trademark booming baritone, which had silenced many a lawyer, sometimes in midsyllable, was gone. His voice now was weak and reedy from the tracheostomy. Rehnquist ticked off the names of the six other justices who'd also written opinions in that Ten Commandments case.

"I didn't know we had that many people on our Court," Rehnquist said slowly, his breathing labored. Then he smiled as he looked to the justices on his left and right, and the courtroom exploded in laughter. Rehnquist thanked the Court's staff for its work over the term. The audience grew completely still. The other justices peered intently at Rehnquist. This would be the time for the announcement. Rehnquist seemed to pause briefly. Then he banged down the gavel and carefully rose from his seat.

The other justices, looking confused, slowly began to follow. Only O'Connor seemed to have a sense of purpose. She turned and stepped beside her old chief, ready to help him if he needed her arm. Then the old chief shuffled back to his chambers, leaving all of Washington to wonder and wait.

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