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Published: Wednesday, 1/17/2007

The Rehnquist file

THE drug dependency of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist was known to the public to a limited extent back in 1982, but the full story of the late jurist's problem didn't come out until his FBI file was released recently under the Freedom of Information Act.

For example, the file shows that Justice Rehnquist's dependency continued for more than a decade rather than five years, as previously thought, and it renews some of the same questions raised in a Blade editorial in 1982.

One is whether the public is well-served by the shroud of official privacy that has traditionally surrounded members of the high court.

While that shroud has been penetrated more than ever in recent years, it is likely that a public outcry would have arisen had it been known in 1971 that Justice Rehnquist already had a serious dependency on a powerful sedative, prescribed in haphazard fashion by the Capitol's attending physician.

Perhaps his appointment would have been sidetracked, putting an end to the 33-year tenure of one of the most conservative justices in recent history before it even started. He eventually died of cancer in 2005.

Thanks to the FBI file, we now know that Justice Rehnquist, who took a seat on the Supreme Court in 1972 and was advanced to chief justice in 1986, took the drug Placidyl for more than 10 years, even though the controlled substance then was recommended only for short-term use.

For years, the FBI reports say, the justice was taking the drug at nearly three times the prescribed dosage. The drug was not a painkiller, but was originally prescribed for insomnia brought on by back pain.

Justice Rehnquist, who had been suffering from slurred speech on the bench, finally was hospitalized in 1981. When the drug was abruptly withdrawn in the hospital, the reports said, he became delirious and tried to escape in his pajamas, believing that the CIA was conspiring against him. He then was weaned from the drug.

The reports don't delve into how the drug may have affected the justice's thought processes or his legal work, except to say that in 1986 several physicians interviewed agreed that his past dependency should not bar him from serving as chief justice. He stayed on the court another 19 years.

In addition to opening a fascinating window into the life of one of this nation's top jurists, the Rehnquist file illustrates the pitfalls of a system which keeps salient details of Supreme Court justices' lives largely private unless they are voluntarily rendered.

What we observed in 1982 is still true today and merits reiteration: the public "deserves a greater opportunity to receive more information about the health of appointed officials responsible for dispensing the highest level of justice in the land."

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