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Rehnquist returns to bench for first time since disclosing illness

WASHINGTON—Looking frail but engaged, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist returned to the Supreme Court bench Monday for the first time since announcing in October that he has thyroid cancer.

The 80-year-old Rehnquist spoke in a hushed, raspy voice that was echoed by a constant hissing, presumably from the tracheotomy he had five months ago to ease his breathing. But he conducted business efficiently, as is his style, announcing the court's orders for the day and presiding over two cases. He said nothing about his illness or speculation that he might retire soon.

Rehnquist participated actively in questioning during both cases—one that will determine whether a Colorado woman can sue police for failing to prevent her estranged husband from murdering their three daughters, and another on whether Congress can give incentives for state officials to expand religious freedom for prisoners. In the Colorado case, Rehnquist suggested that he might oppose expanding the ability to sue police who fail to enforce restraining orders.

Rehnquist's return to the bench, his first public appearance since he swore in President Bush at his inauguration Jan. 20, suggests that he's on the mend and may be able to continue his duties indefinitely. The court has only 10 remaining argument days scheduled this term, running through late April. In May and June the chief will need to attend only court conferences. He's participated in some cases from home since announcing his illness and has written several opinions.

But insiders say the White House is still preparing for his retirement when the court term ends in June, and has begun vetting potential nominees. Rehnquist has been on the court since 1972 and has been chief justice since 1986. The court hasn't gained a new justice since Stephen Breyer was confirmed in 1994.

Interest groups on both sides have started gearing up for what's expected to be a furious battle over Rehnquist's replacement. One group, the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, has $2.5 million banked to press for Bush's nominee.

"The president has a right to get his judges confirmed, and we're going to fight for that," Jay Sekulow, the center's chief counsel, said in a recent interview.

On the other side, People for the American Way, a liberal group, is lobbying to preserve Senate rules that permit extensive debate—known as "filibusters"—to empower Democrats to block judicial nominees they consider extreme.

"The battle for the Supreme Court could be lost before it has even begun if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist succeeds with his `nuclear option' to end judicial filibusters," the group says on its Web site.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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