WASHINGTON - Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist might be next. Or will he?
Seemingly frail from his struggle with thyroid cancer, the chief justice defied expectations in the past week by not announcing his retirement. Instead, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor turned out to be the retiree who caused an explosion of Washington buzz.
But Rehnquist is still considered a good candidate for retirement because of his poor health, possibly giving President Bush the rare opportunity of naming two Supreme Court justices at about the same time.
But some analysts say that if Rehnquist waits much longer, there is a smaller likelihood that he will resign.
"I would doubt it at this point," said Scott Moss, a law professor and Supreme Court expert at Marquette University. "If a justice is going to retire, he probably isn't going to wait until midway through the summer," because that would mean a successor might not be confirmed in time for the court's new term in October.
The 80-year-old chief justice has shown grit in his post, showing up on a cold January inauguration day to swear in Bush to a second term despite being treated for cancer.
Susan Low Bloch, a law professor at Georgetown University, said she had thought that Rehnquist might have announced his resignation this week. "But now I don't know what I think," she said. "Now, I sort of think he may wait."
She said she had heard that Rehnquist "doesn't want to get off" the court while O'Connor did, adding that "I just know he loves the court and has all his life. Once his wife died, that became everything to him."
Sen. Arlen Specter - a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider Supreme Court nominees - weighed in on whether Rehnquist would retire.
"Speaking as someone who likes to get up in the morning with something important to do, I wouldn't say it's keeping the chief justice alive, but I think he likes his job," Specter told reporters on Capitol Hill. "And if we haven't heard from him by now, the chances are you won't hear from him for some time."
Still, observers noted that Rehnquist looked especially weak at the end of the current term.
"I still expect Rehnquist to resign soon, after a decent interval allowing discussion of O'Connor's legacy," said Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar. Some believe this could happen as early as next week.
The speculation about court retirements began when Rehnquist was diagnosed with a form of thyroid cancer in late 2004. He underwent treatment, missing a number of oral arguments late last year and early this year but returned to the bench March 21. During his absence, he participated in deliberations and decisions of the court.
No one knows what the chief justice will do, but Moss said, "There's a long tradition of justices trying to stick it out" even when they are extremely ill.
Even if Rehnquist sticks with the job, his health will always be a matter of speculation as to how much longer he can work.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.