Rehnquist and his colleagues had just kicked off a new Supreme Court term that had reached a significant milestone. Over its history, the Court has welcomed a new justice on an average of about every two years. Rehnquist's current Court had worked together for a decade, the longest period nine justices had ever served together without a change in membership.
But as Rehnquist, O'Connor, and Kennedy left Washington, change seemed likely. The presidential election was weeks away. George W. Bush was fighting for his political life against a spirited challenge from Massachusetts senator John F. Kerry, with both the president and his challenger pointing to the closely divided Supreme Court to illustrate the campaign's high stakes. With two justices over eighty years of age and two others in their seventies, the next president could get one, two, or even three appointments. It seemed certain in those frantic final stages of the race that the winner of this election would shape the direction of the Court, and with it the country, for decades to come.
On a sunny fall Ottawa day, Rehnquist, O'Connor, and Kennedy spent their time meeting with their Canadian counterparts and touring some of the government buildings, including the Senate and House of Commons. After their official visits, O'Connor wanted to look around the picturesque capital. She was a woman in motion, and she liked to bring people along with her. Every year, O'Connor would take her law clerks on long outings around Washington's landmarks to make sure they didn't miss out, and she encouraged the women to join her aerobics class, which she had started at the Supreme Court just after her confirmation in 1981.
"Let's take a walk,"O'Connor suggested to Rehnquist and Kennedy. Kennedy, who joined the Court seven years after O'Connor, was game. But Rehnquist declined. He wasn't feeling well, he said. He had a cold he couldn't shake, some kind of respiratory thing. It had been going on for a while.
Later that day, Kennedy told his wife, Mary, that he thought Rehnquist was unwell. Rehnquist suspected it too. He'd been more tired than usual, and his throat was scratchy. His voice wasn't the same. When he returned home from his Canadian meetings, he went to Bethesda National Naval Medical Center for tests. On Friday, October 22, doctors gave him the news: thyroid cancer, maybe six months.
The next day Rehnquist had surgery to insert a tube in his throat. The Court downplayed the illness, releasing a terse statement the following Monday that Rehnquist had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had undergone surgery. Rehnquist, the Court said, expected to be back on the bench the following week.
With barely a week left before the presidential election, the announcement caused surprisingly little stir. Interest groups tried to make the Supreme Court a rallying point with voters. Reporters interviewed doctors who suggested that Rehnquist's days were numbered. But the Court disclosed nothing more, and the story soon died down. By Friday, news that Rehnquist had been released from the hospital barely merited a mention, since the Court continued to insist he was returning to work that Monday.