1. Archive


John Roberts' seizure raises questions of how to deal with justices' medical issues.

Two current Supreme Court justices have had cancer. Another has a stent to keep an artery open. Now the chief justice has suffered his second unexplained seizure in 14 years.

Like everyone else, members of the court cope with health issues large and small. The justices themselves decide whether and how to continue their work. In an institution that zealously guards the justices' privacy, how much to tell the public gets decided case by case.

"There is quite a long history of illnesses, especially among older members of the court over the years, and no formal structure for dealing with it," said A.E. Dick Howard, a Supreme Court expert at the University of Virginia.

Chief Justice John Roberts strode out of a Maine hospital Tuesday, looking well and waving to onlookers less than 24 hours after a seizure interrupted his summer vacation. He had a similar episode in 1993.

There are no indications that he will have trouble resuming his work duties, and doctors said that most people who have seizures return to work with no ill effects, although they sometimes need medication.

At 52, Roberts is not only the youngest of the nine justices but is the youngest chief justice in 200 years. He has two young children, ages 6 and 7.

That Roberts should be the focus of health concerns is surprising, given the ages and medical histories of his colleagues.

To Roberts' right on the bench sits John Paul Stevens, the court's oldest member at 87 years. Stevens was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the early 1990s. He's a sharp questioner and an avid tennis player, with no plans to retire.

To Stevens' right is Anthony Kennedy, 71. He had a stent inserted in November 2005 to keep an artery open. The stent was replaced last year after Kennedy suffered mild chest pain, but he didn't miss any time on the bench.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 74, had a cancerous growth removed from her colon in September 1999. Seventeen days later, she was on the bench when the court began its new term on the first Monday in October.

In recent years, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist also stayed on the court during his battle with thyroid cancer. Rehnquist was absent from public sessions for five months in late 2004 and early 2005, but he continued to participate in decisions and returned to the bench for the end of the term.

He presided at the term's final session, when many people believed he would announce his retirement. He did not, but he died two months later at age 80 before the start of the next term. Roberts soon was confirmed as his successor.

Fast facts

Chief justice leaves Maine hospital

No word on drugs: The Supreme Court was mum Tuesday on whether Chief Justice John Roberts will need antiseizure medication - after he walked briskly out of a hospital in Maine and resumed his vacation. Specialists say his doctor would have raised that possibility because someone who has had two seizures (Roberts' first was in 1993) is at high risk of having another - as high as 80 percent, said Dr. Gholam Motamedi, epilepsy director at Georgetown University Hospital.

No cause found: The court said doctors found no tumor, stroke or any other possible cause. The definition of epilepsy is having two or more seizures with no other cause. About 3-million Americans meet that definition.

Medical problems can affect the court

The clearest example of a case in which a justice's declining health affected the workings of the court is that of William O. Douglas. The longest-serving justice, Douglas had a serious stroke on Dec. 31, 1974, but insisted he was still able to do the job. But his colleagues believed otherwise. They dragged out their deliberations in cases in which he was the decisive vote. Finally, 10 months later, unable to make it through open court sessions and private conferences, Douglas quit.