We're of two minds when it comes to whether ailing U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist should step down. We hate to lose him, but if he's too ill to carry his load, then he should retire, even though it would set off an ugly political firestorm in Washington over his replacement.
Rehnquist has been a great high-court justice for 33 years, 18 of them as its leader. He's helped shape a less activist, more conservative role for the court, showing a lot of common sense in his rulings and opinions. Perhaps it's time he apply that common sense to his own career.
If the 80-year-old jurist who's been battling thyroid cancer for months can't come back to work full-time soon - and it doesn't look like he will - then he should quit.
The chief justice's job is full-time, yet Rehnquist has substantially reduced his workload since mid-October when he first started undergoing cancer treatment.
Rehnquist's only public appearance since it became known he had cancer was to swear in President George W. Bush for a second term at the inauguration Jan. 20. This past week it was announced he will continue working out of his home, thus missing oral arguments on some of the most controversial issues the court will rule on this year, including property rights and displays of the Ten Commandments in government buildings.
The announcement ramped up speculation that Rehnquist's cancer is not ameliorating, that it may be worsening. If he becomes incapacitated he could linger for months, sticking the court with a batch of inconclusive 4-4 votes. That's why the ninth vote is so important to the process. It's also why Rehnquist would be doing the country a real service by retiring while he's still able to make that decision.
The political fight for his replacement will likely be full of partisan sound and fury, but at the end of the ugly battle the nation will be better served by having a full high court and a full-time chief justice.
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