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Rehnquist silences retirement speculation

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Supreme Court
William H. Rehnquist

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist announced Thursday night that he has no plans to step down from the Supreme Court and will continue to serve as long as he can.

"I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement," Rehnquist said in a statement released through his family. "I am not about to announce my retirement. I will continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits."

A Bush administration official involved in the judicial selection process said the White House is aware of Rehnquist's statement, which was sent to the White House counsel's office.

"We take him at his word," the official said.

Two sources close to the chief justice told CNN they were not surprised because Rehnquist enjoys his work on the court -- but were surprised he felt the need to take the unusual step of issuing a statement to shoot down the retirement rumors.

"All that wild speculation must have convinced him he had to say something," one said.

Rehnquist was released earlier Thursday from a hospital near his northern Virginia home after being admitted Tuesday with a fever, said a U.S. Supreme Court spokeswoman.

The 80-year-old has been battling thyroid cancer since October and underwent a tracheotomy as part of his treatment. He endured weeks of chemotherapy and radiation.

His office has refused to characterize the seriousness of his illness, which forced him to work from home for several months and miss oral arguments in a number of cases.

Many court watchers had expected Rehnquist to announce his departure when the court concluded its annual session in June.

Instead, his colleague, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 75, announced her retirement.

Rehnquist was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1972 by President Richard Nixon and was elevated to chief justice in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.

Sources close to Rehnquist have said he deliberately has kept his staff and friends in the dark about his future, believing it would be a distraction to the court's business if the speculation became too rampant.

"I think he's happy now just getting his work done, and the work of the other justices done. He takes that leadership role seriously," said Richard Garnett, a University of Notre Dame professor and a former law clerk for Rehnquist.

He returned to his office in December and was back on the bench in March. Rehnquist braved the cold in January to uphold tradition and swear-in President Bush for a second term.

Rehnquist's trachea tube remains in place, leaving his voice scratchy, and he uses a wheelchair to get around on long trips.

CNN's Joe Johns and Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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