THE health of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., deserves close and continuing public scrutiny, despite efforts by the U.S. Supreme Court press office to declare the 52-year-old jurist completely recovered from a seizure suffered at his vacation home in Maine on Monday.
The seizure was described by the court s spokesman as idiopathic, which is medical-speak for We have no idea what caused it. In any language, that s not the same as completely recovered, and the public should not unquestioningly accept what appeared to be hasty assurance that the incident won t have any effect on the chief justice s work at the helm of the nation s highest judicial body.
The fact that Chief Justice Roberts had a similar seizure 14 years ago when he was only 38 provides ample cause for concern. Some medical experts are saying that his chances for a third are as high as 70 percent, leaving open the likelihood of serious health problems down the road even if the immediate impact seems minimal.
We do not make these observations to be alarmist, only to be consistent with our concern over the years that the public has not been well-served by the shroud of official secrecy typically drawn around the private lives and medical conditions of members of the Supreme Court.
The topic came up in January, when the FBI, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, released old reports on the drug dependency experienced by the late William Rehnquist, both before and during his 33-year tenure on the court, from 1972 to 2005.
The FBI indicated that Mr. Rehnquist, Chief Justice Roberts immediate predecessor, had over many years a serious dependency on a powerful sedative prescribed for him in haphazard fashion by the Capitol physician.
While the reports gave few clues about whether the dependency had a direct impact on Mr. Rehnquist s legal work, they did describe his 1981 hospitalization, which came after he suffered from slurred speech on the bench. When the controlled substance was abruptly withdrawn in the hospital, he became delirious and tried to escape. Doctors then weaned him from the drug, and he continued on the court for nearly another quarter-century.
The prognosis for Chief Justice Roberts hopefully is less dire, involving a range of medical tests and examination to determine what caused his seizures, how serious the condition is, and how it can be controlled.
In the meantime, we continue to believe that the public interest in open government is ill-served when such incidents involving public officials are kept under wraps.
When it comes to the health of the person responsible for dispensing the highest level of justice in the land, full public disclosure trumps whatever right of privacy Chief Justice Roberts enjoyed before he ascended to the Supreme Court two years ago.