Chief Justice To Jackals: Nuts

705679---U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist over the Supreme Court building AP

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



Good for William Rehnquist! Keenly aware of the political vultures and media jackals circling around him and his prestigious position, and finally fed up with the unseemliness of it all, the Chief Justice of the United States put an end to the often mindless speculation about his imminent retirement with a terse statement. I'm not going anywhere, he just about said, at least not yet. So back off. Stop circling. Get a life. I still have mine.

In just a few words — Rehnquist actually said he wasn't about to retire anytime soon — the nation's top judge highlighted the vast differences between the world of the law and the worlds of politics and the media. In the world of the law, especially in the rarified air of the Supreme Court, things don't happen until they happen. Cases aren't resolved until they make it to court. Bills aren't interpreted until they become law. Few things are rushed. Nothing is assumed.

The law lives in the past and the present. It does not reside in the future. And that's what distinguishes it from politics and the news. Politics is all about who is powerful now and likely to be tomorrow. And the media are all about advancing the story, even when, as with the Rehnquist retirement saga, there really is no story to advance.

In Washington, though, inside a hot Beltway lagging in summertime news, the chattering class for the past few weeks only seems to have wanted to talk about what would happen after Rehnquist were gone. It was as if men and women of power and influence were trying by their words alone to will Rehnquist away, either because it would have made a good story — two Supreme Court vacancies at one time! — or because it would have altered the Court's political balance for the next generation.

It's no wonder that the ailing, frail Rehnquist felt it necessary to take the extraordinary step of declaring to the world that he plans to keep his job awhile longer. I don't blame him a bit — either for staying at his post or for barking at those who would have sent him prematurely into the night. Unlike other Justices who hung on to their positions even after their mental faculties had largely left them, Rehnquist is still razor sharp and productive despite the results of his cancer. By most accounts he is still an active participant both in the administration of the court's business and the decisions it churns out from term to term.
  • Lloyd Vries

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