WASHINGTON -- Squelching rumors of his retirement, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said yesterday he will continue heading the Supreme Court despite his battle with thyroid cancer. ''I'm not about to announce my retirement," he said in a statement obtained by the Associated Press.
''I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement," said Rehnquist, 80. ''I will continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits."
Rehnquist released the statement hours after being released from an Arlington, Va., hospital after being treated for two days with a fever.
President Bush had not been informed in advance about Rehnquist's statement, but the White House welcomed the chief justice's announcement.
''The chief justice is doing an outstanding job, and we are pleased he will continue his great service to the nation," presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said.
His declaration scrambles an unsettled situation on the high court for the second time in less than two weeks. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor unexpectedly stepped down July 1 at a time the White House, the Senate, and outside groups had been preparing for the chief justice to leave the court.
Rumors of his departure intensified after Rehnquist was hospitalized. The White House was proceeding with contingency plans to fill two vacancies, a prospect that might have given Bush the political flexibility to please more than one constituency. With only one seat vacant, Bush will probably come under intense pressure from his political base to nominate a hard-line conservative.
Still, this is the first vacancy of Bush's presidency, and even one new justice to the court has the potential to tip the balance on critical issues such as abortion, affirmative action, and gay rights.
Rehnquist, who has been through at least one round of chemotherapy and radiation, surprised many people when he presided at Bush's inauguration in January and returned to the bench in March, keeping a full schedule.
But except for several brief statements issued by the court since October, Rehnquist has said nothing publicly about his condition or prognosis. He had also said nothing about his plans on the bench despite the vigil kept by reporters and photographers outside his home.
''I think this is going to put the speculation to rest," said Edward Lazarus, a Los Angeles attorney and former Supreme Court clerk. ''He's saying, 'I'm here and I'm not going anywhere.' "
Rehnquist gave no clue how long he will remain on the bench, but observers said that is not unusual because justices rarely disclose their plans.
''This should allow the chief and the court to get on with their business," said Richard Garnett, a former law clerk under Rehnquist.
Medical specialists initially speculated that Rehnquist probably had the deadly anaplastic form of thyroid cancer, based on the chemotherapy-radiation treatment. But now that seems less likely.
''The prognosis for that is so poor. Most patients succumb very quickly, within three to six months," said Dr. Mark Urken, a cancer specialist at Beth Israel Hospital in New York. It is more likely that Rehnquist has another more treatable type, said Urken and other physicians not involved in his treatment.
Dr. Kenneth Burman, a thyroid specialist at Washington Hospital Center, said other possibilities are papillary thyroid cancer or lymphoma of the thyroid. People with those types can be treated and live for years without more problems.
Before yesterday, Rehnquist had said nothing in public about his future until last week, when a reporter called out to him outside his house to respond to retirement rumors. ''That's for me to know and you to find out," Rehnquist replied.
Unless another justice unexpectedly retires, Rehnquist's announcement removes the immediate possibility of a double vacancy, which could have changed Bush's thinking in nominating someone to fill O'Connor's seat.
Some advocates had argued that a double vacancy would have given the president the opportunity -- although it is unclear if he would have taken it -- to nominate a conservative jurist to satisfy those on the right and a person with more moderate judicial views to placate Senate Democrats.