Specter: Chief justice doing fine William Rehnquist doesn't look like he's ready to retire just yet, Pa.'s senior senator said.

Posted: June 21, 2005

Interest groups on the left and right are poised for warfare over the next Supreme Court nomination, but U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter yesterday predicted they'll have to hold their fire for a while.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80 and battling thyroid cancer, did not look like a man about to step down during a luncheon with other justices and the congressional leadership last week, Specter said.

Rehnquist "looked really good," said Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee will have a key role when a court vacancy occurs.

While Rehnquist has not signaled his intentions, many in Washington expect him to announce his retirement at the end of the court's current term June 27, opening a vacancy in the nation's top judicial post for the first time in 19 years.

The White House has been checking out possible nominees, while conservative groups last week held a news conference to announce they'd spend $20 million supporting President Bush's eventual pick, and liberals vowed to fight back.

Specter, 75, is battling Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph system, and he said his experience leads him to believe that staying on the job would be good therapy for Rehnquist.

"If you have a very, very demanding job it takes your mind off your troubles," Specter said. "Thinking about the chief, I have a strong suspicion that he may be with us [awhile], but that's just one person's speculation."

After an absence of five months for chemotherapy, Rehnquist returned to the Supreme Court in March and has been going to work every day.

Specter spoke at the quarterly meeting of the Philadelphia Bar Association at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. He was awarded the group's Bar Medal for contributions to the legal profession and the community.

In accepting the award, Specter, a former city district attorney, said his favorite title was "Philadelphia lawyer."

He said the next Supreme Court nomination will touch off an intense battle, despite the recent agreement between Senate Republicans and Democrats that averted a virtual shutdown of the chamber over Democratic filibustering of judicial nominees. "The stakes are very very high because it is an evenly divided court," Specter said.

A bipartisan group of Senate moderates brokered a deal in which the Democrats promised not to filibuster nominees absent "extraordinary circumstances" and the Republicans promised not to go along with a plan by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) to make it easier to break a filibuster.

One of four Republicans who never took a public position on whether they would have sided with Frist, Specter shed no new light on the issue yesterday, though he did decry polarization in the Senate.

"Let me tell you, in the United States Senate, it's heresy, I mean rank heresy, to say you're an elected United States senator and you want to exercise your independence and vote your conscience," Specter said.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.