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Rehnquist Was Chief Junkie


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The editor of Slate online magazine writes about the long history of drug use by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and notes how little it seemed to bother anybody. The justice later entered a hospital to break his habit.


Chief Justice Rehnquist's Drug Habit

The man in full.

By Jack Shafer

Posted Friday, Sept. 9, 2005, at 2:28 PM PT




The very model of a chief justice


As we usher the 16th chief justice of the United States to his celestial reward, let us remember him in full. He labored successfully to return power to the states, treated colleagues with warmth and respect, was said to be a gregarious boss, and, inspired by a judge's costume he saw in the performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, added four silly gold stripes to each sleeve of his judicial robe.


And for the nine years between 1972 and the end of 1981, William Rehnquist consumed great quantities of the potent sedative-hypnotic Placidyl. So great was Rehnquist's Placidyl habit, dependency, or addiction—depending on how you regard long-term drug use—that by the last quarter of 1981 he began slurring his speech in public, became tongue-tied while pronouncing long words, and sometimes had trouble finishing his thoughts.


The parade of news stories and TV segments that followed Rehnquist's death made little mention of his affair with Placidyl. New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse offered more than any reporter, but still just 57 words near the end of a 6,100-word story. The Boston Globe made a two-sentence mention. The Washington Post story about his death ignored this chapter of his life, as did the Los Angeles Times.



Slate can't brag on this score. David Plotz's 1998 "Assessment" and last week's Rehnquist retrospective-obituaries by Dahlia Lithwick, Walter Dellinger, and Richard W. Garnett avoided the topic.)


Obviously the lede of the chief's obituary should not have read, "William H. Rehnquist, a man with a jones for Placidyl, died yesterday. He also served as chief justice of the United States for 19 years." But the reluctance to explore this part of Rehnquist's life at any length illustrates a general rule of journalism: Most obituarists prefer the airbrush to the sharpened pen when it comes to the famous and powerful. In Rehnquist's case, reporters can't make the "I was on deadline" excuse. The chief justice gave generous advance notice of his impending death for months, and novella-length pieces like the Greenhouse obit were hardly banged out over Labor Day weekend.


Recounting Rehnquist's Placidyl story isn't just a bit of journalistic blood sport at the expense of a dead man. His unorthodox drug consumption first made headlines in 1982, when the Washington Post (owned by the same corporation that owns Slate) broke the story, when he entered the hospital to get off the stuff. The Placidyl episode was also news in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan upgraded Rehnquist from associate justice by nominating him as chief. A confidential report on Rehnquist's medical history prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which contained more details about his habit, was leaked to the press.


The Rehnquist story deserves a third airing today if only to illustrate the ugly double standards that excuse extreme drug use by the powerful, especially if their connection is a prescribing doctor, and condemns to draconian prison terms the guy who purchases his drugs on the street. Reviewing Rehnquist's tale one more time also demonstrates the reluctance of the Senate—and some members of the press—to grade the mental competency of judges and judicial nominees.


The 1986 medical report on Rehnquist described him as seriously "dependent" on Placidyl from 1977 to 1981. He often consumed three month's worth of the drug in one month before requesting more from Dr. Freeman H. Cary, the attending physician to Congress, who prescribed it. Anonymous sources told the Post that Cary first prescribed Placidyl to Rehnquist in 1971 to help him sleep through his severe back pains, but "Cary reportedly told the FBI that Rehnquist had taken it before."


What is Placidyl? Some news clips, such as the Boston Globe obit, call it a painkiller. Yes, it's a painkiller—in the sense that a fistfull of Ambien is a pain killer. You take it and it knocks you out. Placidyl is a "sedative-hypnotic" developed to help insomniacs sleep. See this period advertisement for Placidyl and this one, too. The abuse potential of Placidyl has always been rated as high: An associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University told the Post in 1986 that it was "a strong drug I would use only under very exceptional circumstance" and that he wouldn't give it to people for more than one or two weeks. He added that it shouldn't be given to patients who suffered both pain and insomnia.


The standard dose for adults is 500 milligrams, taken at bedtime. Rehnquist initially took 200 milligrams daily but by 1981 was taking 1,500 milligrams a day. Increasing dosage indicates drug dependency, the Johns Hopkins professor explained. For more about Placidyl's potency, see this "product information" from 1971 distributed by the Abbott Laboratories, the manufacturer in the early 1970s, and reprinted in Licit and Illicit Drugs by Edward M. Brecher.


After the Post broke the story about Rehnquist's drug habit, other news organizations reported that his "health problem" had been apparent to Supreme Court observers for three months before he was hospitalized on Dec. 27, 1981, (UPI) and that "reporters and lawyers at the Court" had notice Rehnquist's speaking problem "in recent months" (New York Times).


According to a Jan. 4, 1982, New York Times account, Rehnquist sought help with the drug in December 1981 because it no longer relieved his pain. He entered George Washington University Hospital on Dec. 27. According to the physician spokesman for the hospital he suffered "disturbances in mental clarity, characterized by distorted perceptions," as doctors weaned him off the drug. The spokesman added that after his Placidyl was cut off, Rehnquist began ''hearing things and seeing things that other people did not hear and see.'' The doctors took his dose back up before re-weaning him. By mid-January, Rehnquist returned to the bench.


When Rehnquist's drug problem became an issue during the 1986 confirmation hearings, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, defended Rehnquist in a Post story, saying he got into trouble with Placidyl because he was "a very compliant patient" who "followed the advice" of his doctors. Ah, yes, one of the most brilliant jurists of his time was the victim of his rotten doctors for almost a decade! Are we to believe that one of the court's sharpest minds never availed himself of a Physicians' Desk Reference for independent medical information, or in any way tried to educate himself about the drug he was taking in larger and larger quantities? The Senate Judiciary Committee asked Rehnquist no questions about his drug use, and he was, of course, confirmed as chief justice. The debate over whether Rehnquist's drug use might be relevant to his fitness to serve as chief never got started.


The Rehnquist narrative presented here owes much to legal scholar David J. Garrow's "Mental Decrepitude on the U.S. Supreme Court: The Historical Case for a 28th Amendment," a 50,000-word article in the fall 2000 issue of the University of Chicago Law Review. Garrow believes a constitutional amendment should be passed forcing judges to retire at 75, and he inquires about the mental competency of a number of Supreme Court justices, including Rehnquist and Thurgood Marshall. Most court observers now concede that Marshall had lost much of his hearing and half his bag of marbles by his final years of service on the court. Garrow blames the Supreme Court press corps for not aggressively covering either such mental slippage or Rehnquist's "publicly visible struggle with deleterious overmedication."


One fascinating aspect of Rehnquist's drug habit is that nobody has ever demonstrated that his performance ever flagged during his decade-long binge. USA Today Supreme Court correspondent Joan Biskupic didn't cover the court during Rehnquist's drug days, but in examining the papers of justices Brennan, Powell, Marshall, and Blackmun, she says, "There's no sign that [Rehnquist] wasn't keeping up with his work" over the period he was taking Placidyl.


Tony Mauro, who covers the court for American Lawyer Media's Legal Times, says Rehnquist's speech problem manifested itself just as he joined the beat. "I do remember him speaking oddly," he says, but he didn't give it much thought. "In retrospect, I should have. A lot of us [reporters] felt that way."


A defense can be made for not including the Placidyl saga in Rehnquist's obituaries. As the Washington Post Supreme Court correspondent Charles Lane points out, his story was not intended to be "a complete biography." Lane has written about Rehnquist's drug use in the context of his thyroid cancer.


But am I unfair to link the reluctance of journalists to zoom in for a close-up on a dead person's warts to a general deference to authority or, in the case of Rehnquist, a class bias that predisposes them to look past his drug habit as purely a medical problem? I think not. This was a watershed event in Rehnquist's life. Did the experience—being dazed on drugs, humiliated in the press, getting off Placidyl—contribute to his jurisprudence? How could it not have? Supreme Court correspondents, start your word processors.




Before you send e-mail, don't even think of accusing me of being a Rehnquist hata: If you were to Venn-diagram my judicial philosophy (such as it is) against that of Rehnquist's and Justice Ruth Ginsburg's, I'd overlap with Rehnquist. That e-mail is [email protected].

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  • 1 year later...

You can't make this stuff up! The Chief justice thought they were out to get him, too!


FBI Files: Rehnquist Had Hallucinations

By MARK SHERMAN and PETE YOST, Associated Press Writers


Thursday, January 4, 2007






The FBI's file on former Chief Justice William Rehnquist — made public more than a year after his death — indicates the Nixon and Reagan administrations enlisted its help in blunting criticism of him during confirmation hearings.



The file also offers insight into the hallucinations and other symptoms of withdrawal that Rehnquist suffered when he was taken off a prescription painkiller in 1981. A doctor was cited as saying that Rehnquist, an associate justice of the Supreme Court at the time, tried to escape the hospital in his pajamas and imagined that the CIA was plotting against him.



The FBI on Wednesday released 1,561 pages of documents on Rehnquist to The Associated Press, other news organizations and scholars in response to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act following Rehnquist's death in September 2005. An additional 207 pages were withheld under the federal disclosure law, and the FBI said an entire section of his file could not be found.



Much of the FBI's file on Rehnquist appears to have been compiled almost exclusively for his two Senate confirmations — his initial nomination to the court by President Nixon in 1971 and his nomination as chief justice by President Reagan in 1986. Administration officials apparently hoped to prevent any surprises from sinking his nominations.



In 1971, Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst directed the FBI to conduct investigations of witnesses who were planning to testify at a Senate hearing against Rehnquist's confirmation. Fifteen years later during the Reagan administration, the FBI was enlisted to conduct background checks on witnesses who were scheduled to testify against Rehnquist's nomination to become chief justice.



The late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 when Rehnquist was nominated to be chief justice. John Bolton, who resigned in December as President Bush's U.N. ambassador, was an assistant attorney general under Reagan.



"Thurmond just gave these names to Bolton they will testify for the Democrats and we want to know what they are going to say," a Justice Department official told a counterpart at the FBI, according to a memo in Rehnquist's file.



Alexander Charns, a Durham, N.C., lawyer who received the file and has extensively researched the FBI's relationship with the court, said the new disclosures show the two administrations went to some lengths to discredit Rehnquist opponents.



"In many ways, I guess it's the same old story of the political use of the FBI," Charns said.



The documents show that the FBI was aware in 1971 that Rehnquist had owned a home in Phoenix with a deed that allowed him to sell only to whites. The restrictive covenant was not disclosed until his 1986 confirmation hearings, at which Rehnquist said he became aware of the clause only days earlier.



Also detailed in the declassified file was Rehnquist's 1981 hospital stay for treatment of back pain and his dependence on powerful prescription pain-relief medication.



The FBI investigated his dependence on Placidyl, which Rehnquist had taken for at least 10 years, according to a summary of a 1970 medical examination.



When Rehnquist checked into a hospital in 1981 for a weeklong stay, doctors stopped administering the drug, causing what a hospital spokesman at the time said was a "disturbance in mental clarity."



The FBI file, citing one of his physicians, said Rehnquist experienced withdrawal symptoms that included trying to escape the facility and discerning changes in the patterns on the hospital curtains. The justice also thought he heard voices outside his room discussing various plots against him.



The doctor said Placidyl is a highly toxic drug and that she could not understand why anyone would prescribe it, especially for long periods.



Prior to his hospitalization, Rehnquist occasionally slurred his speech in his questions to lawyers at Supreme Court arguments. Those problems ceased when he changed medications, the doctor said.



Charns said some of the censored documents provide intriguing hints of what else Rehnquist's file might contain.



In one previously secret memo from 1971, an FBI official wrote, "No persons interviewed during our current or 1969 investigation furnished information bearing adversely on Rehnquist's morals or professional integrity; however ..." The next third of the page is blacked out, under the disclosure law's exception for matters of national security.



"It would be nice to know what is still classified, three decades later," Charns said.

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  • 6 months later...

RE: Chief Falls


We sure know how to pick Chief Justices! The new one has had his second (at least) seizure and falls flat on his face, but we're told that it is "no cause for concern." Huh?


Chief Justice Roberts Is Hospitalized After Seizure




Published: July 30, 2007

WASHINGTON, July 30 — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was hospitalized today after suffering a seizure at his summer home in Maine, the Supreme Court reported.


The episode, described as a “benign idiopathic seizure,” was similar to one he suffered 14 years ago, according to a statement by the court.


He had no lasting effects from the earlier incident and was “fully recovered” from the seizure he experienced about 2 p.m. today, the court said, adding that the chief justice had undergone “a thorough neurological evaluation, which revealed no cause for concern.”


Chief Justice Roberts was due to remain overnight “as a precaution” at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport.


The seizure caused a fall, in which he “experienced minor scrapes,” the court said.


The chief justice’s home, which he bought last year, is on Hupper Island, off Port Clyde. The 400-acre island has only about two dozen houses, offering privacy to his family, which includes two young children. He was taken by boat to the mainland and from there by ambulance to the hospital.


At 52, Chief Justice Roberts is the youngest member of the Supreme Court. He appears the picture of good health and is not known to have any chronic medical problems.


He has spent an active month since the court’s summer recess began at the end of June, with a two-week trip to Europe that included teaching at a seminar in Austria and meeting in Paris with European judges in the company of several of his Supreme Court colleagues. Before leaving for Maine a few days ago, he was working in his chambers at the court.


A White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said President Bush was told of the chief justice’s hospitalization during a meeting earlier in the day.

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RE: Chief Falls


The court is certainly in full damage-control mode concerning Chief Justice's Roberts' seizure. Statements such as "fully recovered" and "no lasting effects" are IMO premature and misleading to say the least and if I were a cynical person would call downright falsehoods.


I have only heard two physicians on air willing to call this either grand mal or epilectic. One said two episodes of grand mal over a 14 year period would qualify a diagnosis of epilepsy. Obviously this is not (yet) a debilitating form of epilepsy given the time elapsed since the last episode but, given the sudden nature of the total loss of consciousness, the judge will no doubt be urged not to drive a motor vehicle and avoid putting himself in any position where a fall would have disastrous consequences (as it is, it was revealed Roberts fell 5 to 10 feet which is a not inconsiderable height). People have broken their necks in similar situations.


I can't see how this will affect Roberts' ability to serve on the court and unless his condition worsened should not alter the outlook that he will be around for a long time,assuming he follows doctors' orders LOL!

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Guest zipperzone

RE: Chief Falls


>I can't see how this will affect Roberts' ability to serve on

>the court and unless his condition worsened should not alter

>the outlook that he will be around for a long time,assuming he

>follows doctors' orders LOL!


That wouldn't be Dr. Bush by any chance, would it?

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