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Chief Justice To Jackals: Nuts

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.

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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.

So why should he leave? Just because it would be politically expedient for President Bush if he were to do so? Because Rehnquist has something more important to do? Because his job is no longer mentally challenging? The Chief Justice doesn't owe anything to the president. It's the president who owes his job to the Chief Justice, remember? And Rehnquist certainly doesn't owe anything to Congress, his eventual successor, or the reporters who have turned his demise, Francisco Franco-like, into a sport.

Can you imagine sitting at your desk and watching on television as pointy-headed legal analysts and politicos argued over who your replacement should be? I can't. Can you imagine hearing news reports that you were planning to hand in your resignation at a particular time and place? I can't. Can you imagine some people around you acting as though you already were dead or gone? I can't. A man deserving of so much respect and courtesy and dignity has received almost none over the past month or so.

Rehnquist did what he did because he could. He called out his pursuers for their unseemliness and disrespect and selfishness, and now hopefully their ghoulish vigil will end for a while. Whether you agree with his views or not, the man deserves to work in peace and to live out the rest of his days as he wants to. After his decades of service to the nation, the least we all can do is to grant him that courtesy.

By Andrew Cohen

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