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Rehnquist, William H.

William H. Rehnquist

Evidence Surfaces of Justice Rehnquist's Dependency on Prescription Drugs

William H. Rehnquist was first named to the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice in 1971, becoming the Court's 16th Chief Justice in 1986, a position he held until his death in September 2005. In January 2007, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released 1,561 pages from its files on Rehnquist, pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, that raised some questions about his tenure on the Court. (Privacy laws prohibit dis-closure of such files during the person's lifetime.)

The first involved Rehnquist's use of the prescription drug Placidyl, originally prescribed to him for insomnia following back surgery in 1971. During a routine investigation of Rehnquist's background in 1986 (following President Ronald Reagan's nomination of him as chief justice), the FBI obtained a medical report that described him as seriously "dependent" on Placidyl from 1977 to 1981. The standard adult dose of this drug, labeled a "sedative-hypnotic," is 500 milligrams, taken at bedtime. Rehnquist initially took 200 milligrams in 1971, but by 1981 was taking 1,500 milligrams a day. The medicine was prescribed by Dr. Freeman H. Cary, the attending physician to Congress.

Most of this was already known prior to the release of the FBI file. Journalists had previously reported Rehnquist's self-admission into George Washington University Hospital in December 1981 for treatment of persistent back pain and dependence on Placidyl. The prescription drug, generically known as ethchlorvynol, is a sleep-inducing medication but is not technically a pain-killer. Although it is not an opiate, it can be addictive and withdrawal may cause symptoms such as hallucinations and temporary memory loss.

While media stories widely reported Rehnquist's "bizarre" and "paranoid" behavior while in the hospital, they generally failed to note that he had abruptly stopped taking the medication "cold turkey" and that the symptoms were manifestations of withdrawal rather than medication. Doctors told FBI agents that when Rehnquist stopped taking Placidyl, he developed paranoid delusions, hearing voices outside of his hospital room, fearing a CIA plot against him, and describing changing patterns in the design patterns of the hospital curtains. At one point, Rehnquist attempted to escape in his pajamas, but only made it as far as the hospital lobby. The doctors concluded that the withdrawal symptoms were so severe that they reintroduced the justice to Placidyl in smaller doses and gradually weaned him off until he quit taking them entirely in early February 1982.

All the doctors interviewed by FBI investigators in 1986 proffered their expert opinions that the former dependence on Placidyl should not affect Rehnquist's work performance or capability on the Court, and it did not become an issue during his confirmation hearings. Nor were there any later accusations or suggestions that Rehnquist's role on the Court or his work had been affected by his dependence during those years. He continued to suffer back pain for the remainder of his life, as well as a bout with thyroid cancer.

What did become a media issue after the release of the FBI papers was the apparent interest of the Justice Department, during both of Rehnquist's confirmation hearings in 1971 and 1986, in enlisting the FBI to check out what witnesses lined up by Senate Democrats were intending to say at the hearings.

The FBI files showed that in 1971, an aide to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and then-Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst requested a "background check" on two Phoenix residents who were planning to testify against Rehnquist's nomination. The media covered the story at the time, and the FBI issued a statement that all questioning was impartial and without intimidation. Then again in 1986, Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the FBI to interview two witnesses who were expected to raise allegations that Rehnquist had "challenged" blacks waiting in line to vote in 1962. The request was relayed by a young attorney general, John Bolton (the recent ambassador to the United Nations). Years later, after the FBI files were released, Bolton was contacted and told reporters that there was no political motivation behind the request because it had come from Senate Democrats. Further, the FBI found no evidence that Rehnquist had intimidated voters.

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