WASHINGTON, DC—Responding to widespread speculation, members of the U.S. Supreme Court told reporters Monday that they will not continue to hear cases if Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, steps down.
"It just wouldn't be the same court without Bill," Justice David Souter said. "He's the heart and soul of this judicature, the one who motivates us to keep ruling. I can't imagine doing it without him."
In October, Rehnquist, who has served on the Supreme Court for 33 years, announced that he has thyroid cancer. The statement led some to speculate that he will not complete his annual term.
"The Supreme Court is a middle-aged man's game," Rehnquist told Law and Justice magazine in November 1997. "I can't see myself swinging the gavel at 90. I just don't have the stamina."
At an informal hearing held in Justice Steven J. Breyer's kitchen in December, the Supreme Court voted 7 to 1 in favor of breaking up, with Justice Antonin Scalia abstaining from the vote. Rehnquist was the sole dissenting voice.
"Bill kept arguing that no matter what happened, the Supreme Court should continue," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said. "It was touching to see how much faith he has in us, but I think the majority opinion is in favor of quitting while we're on top, rather than muddling through a bunch of mediocre judicial sessions and becoming some sort of kangaroo court."
Continued O'Connor, "The hardest thing to achieve with a judicial body as large as ours is a rapport. To effectively interpret the law, you need that certain magical something. Without Rehnquist, we'll lose that vibe."
Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed.
"Maybe you have to be sitting on the bench to understand, but there's something special about Rehnquist," Kennedy said. "You can feel the electricity fill the air as soon as the court marshal calls out, 'Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the court is now sitting.'"
While he was not appointed chief justice until 1986, Rehnquist has appeared on more television shows and in more magazines than any justice in the history of the Supreme Court.
"Rehnquist's been the court's spiritual leader since being sworn in in 1972," Souter said. "Right now, the Supreme Court is the most powerful legal body in the country. I think we'd all prefer to go down in the books that way."
Bernard Tomaine, publisher of the Supreme Court fanzine The Docket, characterized Rehnquist's role as "essential."
"When Rehnquist leaves, it's going to be the end of an era," Tomaine said. "He's absolutely irreplaceable."
Added Tomaine: "I've got a bootleg copy of an opinion that Rehnquist wrote for U.S. v. Verdugo-Urquidez that would blow your mind."
Although the associate justices have yet to announce their plans following the dissolution of the Supreme Court, Tomaine said he believes that many will continue on with solo judiciary projects.
"I don't think they're ready to give up interpreting the law just yet," Tomaine said. "I wouldn't be surprised if a number of these justices get together and start something very similar to the Supreme Court, but under a different name. I heard that Scalia wants to set up a new organization under the name 'The U.S. Supreme Court featuring Antonin Scalia.' Personally, I think it's very disrespectful to use the name of that honorable institution, but I suppose it's his right."
While no definitive time frame has been established for Rehnquist's departure, many speculate that it will be soon.
"Swearing in Bush for his second term will be a big moment," Tomaine said. "Unless he's got something up his sleeve for [terrorism suspect Zacarias] Moussaoui's trial, he'll probably leave right after the inauguration. I can't see Rehnquist going out on a quiet note. That's just not his style."
Although the justices' resolve seems strong, some fans of the Supreme Court say the eight justices will change their minds after Rehnquist leaves.
"This is not the first time a government branch has threatened to quit for personal reasons," said Henry Loghermann, a prominent Washington D.C. historian and Supreme Court groupie. "Take the Department of the Interior in the '80s. They kept saying that if James Watt left, they'd all go their separate ways. Well, Watt left, and the DOI is still going strong. And I can't even count how many times the British House of Lords has broken up and reformed in the past 50 years. When the harsh reality sets in, the high court will see what few options they have and cut the bluster."