WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, a key member of the high court's aging liberal wing, has suffered a "small and localized recurrence" of prostate cancer and is being treated as an outpatient at the Mayo Clinic, a spokesman for the Rochester, Minn., clinic said Monday.
Associates of the 78-year-old Blackmun, whose prostate was removed in cancer surgery 10 years ago, sought Monday to play down the possibility that the medical problems would force the justice to leave the court. A Mayo Clinic spokesman described the treatments Blackmun is receiving as "not incapacitating and . . . short-term."
Nevertheless, the announcement caught Reagan Administration and court officials by surprise and immediately prompted speculation about another possible vacancy on the bench, which is already facing a potentially major ideological shift. Conservative federal Judge Robert H. Bork has been nominated to replace retiring Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a moderate.
In addition, if Blackmun stays on and concerns about his health persist, the current strong opposition to Bork's appointment could be "defused" because senators would be reluctant to have two vacancies on the Supreme Court at the same time, an adviser to a key Democratic senator said Monday night.
Under such circumstances, it would be "extremely difficult to reject a nominee for ideological reasons," the Senate adviser said.
But sources close to Blackmun said they had received no indications that the justice was considering stepping down from the court. "My impression is that it's a minor thing," said one former clerk who stays in close touch with Blackmun's office.
"He seemed alert and spry and healthy," said another former clerk who had breakfast with Blackmun recently. "But," the clerk acknowledged, "at his age, you're never really sure."
The health of many of the justices on the Supreme Court--particularly its traditionally liberal bloc--has attracted increasing attention in recent years as the bench's membership has aged well beyond conventional retirement years. In addition to Blackmun, the liberal faction includes Justice William J. Brennan Jr., who is 81, and Justice Thurgood Marshall, 79.
Marshall, who is overweight and wears a hearing aid, has suffered from glaucoma and a variety of respiratory ailments for years. Brennan has had health problems in the past, including a small stroke a decade ago, but he has appeared far healthier in the last two years and has been working out on an exercise bicycle every morning, friends say.
Blackmun is best known as the author of the high court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling, which struck down state laws that had barred abortions. Since Powell announced his retirement at the end of June, friends of Blackmun have reported that the justice was depressed over the possibility that Bork might side with the court's conservatives and overturn that decision.
Spokesmen for Mayo and for the court provided little information Monday. They refused, reportedly at Blackmun's request, to disclose either the exact nature of his current cancer or the treatments he is receiving.
Blackmun underwent a radical prostatectomy--removal of the prostate gland and surrounding tissue--in 1977 at Mayo, the clinic confirmed. Each summer since then, he has returned for a checkup at the clinic, which for many years was a legal client of his before he became a judge.
His most recent visit, when doctors apparently discovered the recurrence of his cancer, was on July 1, when he underwent surgery for what Blackmun's office at the court described as a "minor hernia."
As recently as Friday, when Blackmun missed a long-standing speaking engagement, his office said only that he was recuperating from the hernia operation and that he was well. No mention of a recurrence of cancer was made.
Urologists contacted by The Times said it was difficult to evaluate the significance of Blackmun's cancer recurrence without knowing more details about the treatment he had received in 1977 and the extent of the new growth. They said he is probably receiving radiation therapy, although it was impossible to be certain without more information.
The prostate is a walnut-shaped gland that surrounds the urethra, the tube that connects the bladder to the penis.
Dr. Emil Tanagho, professor and chairman of the Department of Urology at the UC Medical Center, San Francisco, said it was "to be expected" that Blackmun's prostate tumor would eventually recur because the original cancer apparently extended beyond the prostate gland itself and involved the surrounding tissues.
But Tanagho added that the localized recurrence could be a relatively "favorable sign" if Blackmun had suffered no previous recurrences and remained free of cancer elsewhere in his body. This might indicate that the tumor was "very slow growing" and therefore would be more likely to respond to treatment.
Staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington and Robert Steinbrook in Los Angeles contributed to this story.