Chief Justice Rehnquist's drug habit.

Media criticism.
Sept. 9 2005 5:28 PM

Rehnquist's Drug Habit

The man in full.

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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.

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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.

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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 slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.