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Behind the bench

The openness about Chief Justice Roberts' seizure should set a precedent for the high court.

August 01, 2007

In providing the public with what seems like complete information about Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s seizure, the Supreme Court is breaking from one of its least admirable traditions: shrouding the health problems of justices in secrecy or less than full disclosure. The immediate comparison is with the frustrating lack of detail about the illness that ended the life of Roberts' mentor and predecessor, William H. Rehnquist. But throughout its history, members of the court, usually when they reached an advanced age, have suffered impairments that weren't public knowledge until after they died.

The openness about Roberts' seizure reflects well on the court, on the Roberts family and on the hospital where he was treated. It also provides a model for the disclosure of the health problems of other members of the high court.

Granted, it's easier to be open about a health condition when it is transitory and doesn't impair a justice's ability to do his job, which fortunately seems to be the case with the "benign idiopathic seizure" that caused the 52-year-old chief justice to lose his footing Monday while on vacation in Maine. Even so, the public has a fuller understanding of Roberts' condition -- and possible complications -- than it did when the court announced in October 2004 that Rehnquist had undergone a tracheotomy "in connection with a diagnosis of thyroid cancer." Reporters were left to canvass medical experts about whether the chief justice suffered from a life-threatening form of the disease. Rehnquist returned to the bench, but he died less than a year after his diagnosis was made public.

In Roberts' case, the public knows not only what occurred -- a brief seizure similar to one Roberts suffered in 1993 -- but also the results of a neurological examination that pronounced him fully recovered. We hope the court will be equally candid about whether, in an attempt to prevent a recurrence, Roberts is prescribed medication that could affect his work or his routine (for example, whether he will have to be driven to the court as a precaution).

Supreme Court justices are accustomed to more privacy in medical matters than the president of the United States, an elected official whose physical and mental state could have implications for national security. At least since the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson -- who famously revealed a scar from abdominal surgery -- presidents have erred on the side of disclosure. In that tradition, the White House reported last month not only that President Bush had undergone a colonoscopy but that doctors had found five polyps, none of them cancerous.

We don't expect a similar level of detail from members of the high court about their ordinary medical care. But when a justice must be taken by ambulance to a hospital, the more disclosure, the better.

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