WASHINGTON — Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who steered the Supreme Court on a more conservative course during more than 33 years on the bench and who presided over the impeachment trial of one president and helped elect another, died Saturday at his home in Arlington, Va. He was 80.
Rehnquist had been in failing health since he was diagnosed in October with thyroid cancer. An announcement from the court late Saturday said the chief justice had experienced "a precipitous decline in his health in the last couple of days" and died in the evening, surrounded by his three children.
Rehnquist's death came on the eve of confirmation hearings for President Bush's first Supreme Court nominee, Judge John G. Roberts, whose first job in Washington was as a clerk for then-Justice Rehnquist.
The president will now have a second seat to fill on the high court, and the timing of Rehnquist's death may complicate the choice.
Earlier this year, many conservatives in Washington had cited Roberts as a likely choice for chief justice had Rehnquist retired, as expected at the end of this year's term in late June. Instead, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor surprised the White House by announcing her retirement.
About three weeks later, Bush then surprised many observers by nominating Roberts, rather than choosing a woman to fill the seat of the first woman to serve on the high court.
Nothing would prevent the president from changing course slightly and nominating Roberts to be chief justice. Or, he could choose to elevate one of the current members of the court to be chief justice, including Justice Antonin Scalia or Justice Clarence Thomas.
Or, he could nominate a new justice from among the many candidates who were carefully scrutinized earlier this year.
Rehnquist, an associate justice on the court from 1972 to 1986 and chief justice from 1986 on, refused to give in to his illness. He swore in President Bush for a second term in January and returned to the bench shortly afterward.
Though he appeared weak and spoke with difficulty, the chief justice participated in the court's oral arguments and could be counted upon to ask sharp questions. The other justices said he continued to handle his duties inside court, including leading the discussion at the court's private conference.
In his final opinion for the court, Rehnquist spoke for the 5-4 majority that upheld the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments monument that sat outside the Texas state Capitol in Austin. The chief justice said the Constitution did not prevent the government from acknowledging the nation's religious heritage.
On the court's final day for announcing decisions, Rehnquist gasped for breath and struggled to read an opinion. But he did not announce his retirement, as was widely expected.
His friends speculated that the regular work duties helped maintain his spirits in the battle against cancer.
Within days of O'Connor's announcement, Rehnquist said that he would not be following her by departing from the bench.
"I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement," he said in a statement in July. "I am not about to announce my retirement. I will continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits."
The statement was issued the day Rehnquist left the hospital, where he had gone for treatment of a fever. A second bout with fever put him in the hospital for tests early in August.
Rehnquist served longer as chief justice than anyone in a century, and his 33-year career as a justice was among the half-dozen longest in the court's history.
Under his leadership, the court restored the death penalty, allowed more public funding for religious schools and pulled back from the frontiers of civil rights and individual liberties.
But the Rehnquist court may be best remembered for its decision in Bush vs. Gore, the ruling that halted Florida's recount of the untabulated ballots in the disputed election of 2000, thereby assuring victory for the Republican candidate, George W. Bush.
The chief justice led the 5-4 majority that first stopped the recount and then ended it for good.
Rehnquist had a vast impact across a wide array of constitutional law, but not because he invented new doctrines or championed individual rights. To the contrary, he made his mark by rejecting the use of judicial power.
Rehnquist was the rare public official who strove to make his office less powerful. He believed the Constitution left the hard decisions of governing to local, state and federal officials who were accountable to the voters.
Throughout his long career on the bench, he argued for judicial restraint. Judges do not have "a roving commission to second-guess Congress, state legislatures and state and federal administrative officers concerning what is best for the country."