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Chief justice suffers seizure

Neurological tests show `no cause for concern.' Roberts had a similar benign episode in 1993.

July 31, 2007|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suffered a seizure Monday while vacationing at his summer home off the coast of Maine, causing a fall that resulted in minor scrapes.

Roberts, 52, was taken by private boat from Hupper Island to the mainland, and then by ambulance to Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine.

A statement issued by the Supreme Court said Roberts "underwent a thorough neurological evaluation, which revealed no cause for concern."

He was to stay overnight at the hospital as a precaution.

"The chief justice is fully recovered from the incident," court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said in the statement.

She said Roberts had suffered "what doctors describe as a benign idiopathic seizure" around 2 p.m.

"Idiopathic" means the cause is unknown. Medical experts said doctors would have performed a magnetic resonance imaging scan, or MRI, and other tests to rule out a brain tumor or stroke.

Roberts suffered a similar seizure in 1993, the court confirmed. For several months afterward, he did not drive but instead took a bus or carpooled with a friend to work in downtown Washington.

A seizure is caused by "excessive electrical activity in the brain," according to Medline Plus, an online medical encyclopedia by the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine.

Some seizures are focused on one part of the brain or one side of the body; others are classified as generalized, meaning the whole body is affected.

Not all seizures cause an individual to lose consciousness or experience convulsions.

Roberts "was conscious and alert" while being transported after Monday's incident, the local fire chief, Tim Polky, told the Associated Press.

Two medical experts in Los Angeles said the seizure was not likely to limit Roberts' ability to work on the court.

Just about everyone is at some risk of a seizure, said Dr. Marc Nuwer, an expert in seizure disorders at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine.

In an adult, a seizure can be triggered by a variety of factors, including sleep deprivation, stress, alcohol consumption or certain medications.

Other risk factors include birth-related trauma or high fevers in childhood, such as from meningitis, said Dr. Laura A. Kalayjian, a neurologist at USC.

More serious causes of seizures, which an MRI would rule out, include brain tumors, strokes or structural abnormalities.

Physicians would also probably perform an electroencephalogram, or EEG, to look for other potential causes by examining the brain's electrical activity.

Because of Roberts' previous seizure, physicians may offer him drugs to reduce the risk of recurrence.

But given the length of time between his two episodes, the benefits of such medications -- which are taken daily -- may not outweigh the risk of side effects.

If doctors can identify the trigger, Roberts might be able to modify his lifestyle to minimize future risk, such as making sure he gets adequate sleep when he is under stress.

For the next week or so, Nuwer said, Roberts probably will have a headache and a sore body. "He will feel bad, like he ran a marathon but was not in shape," he said.

The chief justice will also probably be told not to drive for at least a week until physicians are confident he will not have another seizure.

Nuwer and Kalayjian emphasized that the seizure should not have any effect on Roberts' mental abilities or his service on the court.

"I am fully comfortable with him continuing to do his job," Nuwer said.

Two years ago this month, President Bush selected Roberts -- then an appellate judge -- to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Roberts' health was then described as excellent.

Six weeks later, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died of cancer, and the president switched course to nominate Roberts for chief justice.

Roberts won Senate confirmation easily and took his place in the center of the Supreme Court bench as the nation's 17th chief justice when the court resumed work in October 2005.

In just two terms, he has proved to be the leader whom many conservatives had hoped for.

This year, he led a narrow majority that permitted more regulation of abortion, shielded manufacturers from large punitive damage verdicts, barred school integration guidelines that assigned some children based on race, and cleared the way for more corporate-funded ads in the weeks before elections.

In his first year, Roberts took pride in winning support for a series of unanimous rulings. He hoped that the court's speaking in one voice would tell the public that its decisions were based on law, not on competing ideological views.

But this year, the justices were badly split.

About a third of the court's rulings were decided by 5-4 votes. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Reagan appointee with a centrist record, voted with the majority in all of the 24 closely split cases.

Roberts spent several weeks this month teaching a law course in Vienna, but he was back in Washington at the court last week. He and his wife, Jane, purchased the Hupper Island vacation home in the spring of 2006.

They have two young children.

Times staff writer Thomas H. Maugh II in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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