Chief Justice Rehnquist Dies at 80

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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.

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."

The last time the Supreme Court had two vacancies at once was in 1971, when Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan retired in the face of terminal illnesses. President Richard M. Nixon then named William H. Rehnquist, who was an assistant attorney general, to one of the vacancies and Lewis F. Powell Jr. to the other. Justice Rehnquist took his seat on January 7, 1972. President Ronald Reagan named him in 1986 to be the 16th chief justice of the United States.

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