WASHINGTON — Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died Saturday evening at his home in suburban Virginia, said U.S. Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg.
A statement from the spokeswoman said he was surrounded by his three children when he died in Arlington. He was 80.
“The Chief Justice battled thyroid cancer since being diagnosed last October and continued to perform his duties on the court until a precipitous decline in his health the last couple of days,” she said.
Rehnquist was appointed to the Supreme Court as an associate justice in 1971 by President Nixon and took his seat on
Jan. 7, 1982. He was elevated to chief justice by President Reagan in 1986.
His death ends a remarkable 33-year Supreme Court career during which Rehnquist oversaw the court’s conservative shift, presided over an impeachment trial and helped decide a presidential election.
The death presents President Bush with his second court opening within four months and sets up what’s expected to be an even more bruising Senate confirmation battle than that of John
Rehnquist presided over President Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999, helped settle the 2000 presidential election in Bush’s favor and fashioned decisions over the years that diluted the powers of the federal government while strengthening those of the states.
The chief justice passed up a chance to step down over the summer, which would have given the Senate a chance to confirm his successor while the court was out of session. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement to spend time with her ill husband.
Possible replacements include Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and any of several federal courts of appeals judges. Others mentioned are former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, lawyer Miguel Estrada and former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson.
On the court’s final meeting day of the last term, June 27, Rehnquist appeared gaunt and had difficulty as he announced the last decision of the term — an opinion he wrote upholding a Ten Commandments display in Texas. His breathing was labored, and he kept the explanation short.