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Ailing chief justice hails judicial liberty

As speculation continues to swirl over his future on the Supreme Court, ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist urged Americans to view the current debate over the ideological direction of the federal judiciary in historical perspective.

Writing in his annual year-end report on the state of the federal courts, released to the public today, Rehnquist tackled the issue of "judicial activism," observing that criticism of judges "has dramatically increased in recent years."

"But," he added, "criticism of judges and judicial decisions is as old as our republic, an outgrowth to some extent of the tensions built into our three-branch system of government. To a significant degree those tensions are healthy in maintaining a balance of power in our government."

"Let us hope," the chief justice concluded, "that the Supreme Court and all of our courts will continue to command sufficient public respect to enable them to survive basic attacks on the judicial independence that has made our judicial system a model for much of the world."

It was a message likely to fire up neither side in what both liberals and conservatives see as a looming partisan fight over a possible nomination of a successor to Rehnquist, 80, by President Bush _ as well as judges to the federal bench.

But the above-the-fray remarks were in keeping with Rehnquist's roles as titular head of the nation's courts and as spokesman for the interests of judges _ roles that he has seemed to relish as his 18-year tenure as chief justice has advanced.

The report also drew on his other abiding interest in recent years: the study of history.

Rehnquist reminded readers that the court had weathered past battles involving school desegregation, a plan by President Franklin Roosevelt to "pack" the bench with pro-New Deal justices and even the impeachment of Justice Samuel Chase in 1805. Chase was acquitted by the Senate and served until 1811.

Rehnquist wrote the report from home, where he has been recovering since announcing in October that he has cancer. He provided no new information on his physical condition, though he did offer a word of thanks to "all of those who have sent their good wishes for my speedy recovery."

In past statements, he has said that he is suffering from thyroid cancer and underwent a tracheotomy as a result.

He has not been seen at oral arguments since early October, and has said that he will vote in the cases argued during the first two weeks of November only if necessary to break a tie.

But the court says that Rehnquist is working at home while receiving radiation and chemotherapy and that he plans to vote in all of the cases argued during the court's December sitting.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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