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Rehnquist in Hospital After Fever Detected

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

There's word today that Chief Justice William Rehnquist is in the hospital. NPR's Nina Totenberg is with us.

And, Nina, let's say at the outset what we know and what we don't know about the chief justice's condition.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

Well, Robert, don't ring the alarm bells yet. The chief was taken by ambulance to a suburban Washington hospital last night with a fever; we don't know how high a fever. But according to the court's spokeswoman, Kathy Arberg, he's being kept at the hospital today for observation and further tests. From everybody that I've talked to, I get the sense that this hospitalization is more precaution than an emergency. The chief justice, after all, is 80 years old. He's being treated for an aggressive form of thyroid cancer, so nobody is taking anything for granted.

SIEGEL: This is actually the second time that he's been hospitalized pretty recently.

TOTENBERG: Yes, four months ago, in March, he was briefly hospitalized for a problem with his tracheostomy.

SIEGEL: So what, if anything, can we surmise about the problem right now?

TOTENBERG: Well, I should say at the outset that we don't know anything. But the medical experts that I talked to today note that anybody who's getting chemotherapy treatments is more vulnerable to a generalized infection, a urinary tract infection, for example, or even a cold. It can blossom into something more. So we don't know when was the most recent treatment, but that's a possibility.

The chief justice has other vulnerabilities related, for example, to his tracheostomy. He could have aspirated something into his lungs, and that can lead to pneumonia, or there could be a leak in his feeding tube in his belly, and those are among the most likely culprits.

SIEGEL: Now this comes after weeks and weeks of rumors of an imminent retirement announcement from Justice Rehnquist.

TOTENBERG: It sure does, but the rumors have been based on speculation and expectation. And so far the chief justice has defied those expectations, giving no indication whatsoever that he plans to retire. In fact, he told reporters staked out at his house the other day--when they asked him if he was going to retire, he said, `That's for me to know and you to find out.'

SIEGEL: Well, did the court today announce this hospitalization?

TOTENBERG: Actually not. This fell into the realm of `for us to find out.' Reporters who were staked out at the house didn't see the chief justice emerge this morning as usual. And then they saw the court police come and take out with them the chief justice's cane, a fresh shirt, other personal items. And reporters then made inquiries, and that prompted the Supreme Court then to make this announcement that he's been briefly hospitalized.

SIEGEL: And any indication--have they said, given any indication of how long he might remain in the hospital?

TOTENBERG: They haven't given any indication. But if he needs his cane and a fresh shirt, it doesn't sound to me as though he's bedridden right now anyway.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.