Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died Saturday night of the thyroid cancer he had battled for nearly a year, opening a second Supreme Court vacancy just days before Senate confirmation hearings were to begin to fill the seat being vacated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Kathleen Arburg, the court's public information officer, said Chief Justice Rehnquist, 80, had died at his home in Arlington, Va., surrounded by his three children. She said he had been working at the court during the summer recess until his health declined a "precipitous decline" in the last few days. (Obituary)
Although the chief justice was known to be seriously ill with the thyroid cancer, which was diagnosed last October, his death at this moment came as a surprise. Six weeks ago, with rumors swirling that he would soon retire, he issued an unusual statement declaring that he would continue to serve as chief justice "as long as my health permits."
His death on the eve of the confirmation hearings for Judge John G. Roberts Jr., set to begin Tuesday, raised the prospect that President Bush might transfer Judge Roberts's nomination, making him a candidate for chief justice instead. Judge Roberts was a law clerk to Chief Justice Rehnquist, who was then an associate justice, during the court's 1980 term.