The make up of the Supreme Court was thrust back into the spotlight last week after Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist announced that he had thyroid cancer.
With four justices in their 70s or 80s, health problems are not uncommon among justices. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor survived breast cancer 16 years ago. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been treated for colon cancer. Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest justice on the court, was treated for prostate cancer over a decade ago.
According to the National Cancer Institute, about 18,000 Americans are diagnosed with thyroid cancer every year. Treatment options include chemotherapy, surgery and hormone treatments. Often aggressive types of thyroid cancer are fatal.
Experts speculate that at least one, but possibly up to three new justices could be appointed by the next administration. This however, depends on the outcome of the election. Rehnquist has previously stated he would be more likely to retire with a Republican in the White House.
“It is influential because it is up to the courts to determine the constitutionality of laws and how they are actually implemented,” said New Jersey native and American University student Sam Kopolovich.
Although the Supreme Court litmus test was an issue in the 2000 election, it has not appeared as a significant issue during this election cycle. The court has been ideologically balanced since 1993, with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor often providing the tie-breaking vote.
Some students see the speculation of retirement as a way to change the ideology of the Supreme Court. The current court is considered conservative.
“I believe having a more progressive and liberal supreme court is what this country needs to remain at the top of the food chain, if you will,” said American University freshman Tori Martin.
“I want both the constitutionality and implementation to be looked at from a conservative standpoint. The literal word of the constitution,” said Kopolovich.
There has not been an opening on the Supreme Court for 10 years, the longest time since 1823. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the most recent appointee, under Clinton, in 1993.
Many students had already received and sent back absentee ballots before the announcement was made.
Martin, who voted in Ohio, said the knowledge would not have changed her vote. “There are other things more important to me in this election.”
American University sophomore Colleen McHugh agrees. “It doesn’t influence my vote extremely because I would vote Democrat either way.”
Kopolovich disagrees. “It would influence my vote,” he said. “I want conservative judges on the bench.”
Chief Justice Rehnquist is 80. He was appointed to the court by Nixon in 1972 and promoted to Chief Justice in 1986 under Reagan. Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, openings only appear in cases of retirement or death.
If Rehnquist were too sick to vote, the other eight judges would vote without him. In the case of a tie, the lower courts ruling would be upheld.
According Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg, Rehnquist underwent a tracheotomy Oct. 25 at the National Naval Center in Bethesda, Md. Arberg would not elaborate or speculate on his condition. After missing court Nov. 1, Rehnquist issued a statement that he was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment.