FBI details chief justice's prescription drug trouble

Friday, January 5, 2007

Former U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist suffered paranoid delusions in 1981 during withdrawal from a dependence on prescription painkillers, according to his recently-released FBI file.

The late head of the U.S.'s top court began taking the drug Placidyl in the early 1970s for insomnia and back pain while he was an associate Supreme Court justice. His dependence on the drug was first made public when he was hospitalized for symptoms related to it in 1981, but the delusions were only revealed in the release of the file this week.

William Rehnquist takes the oath to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 after a confirmation hearing during which he was investigated by the FBI.

A doctor who treated Rehnquist told an FBI investigator the justice had "bizarre ideas and outrageous thoughts. He imagined, for example, that there was a CIA plot against him." Another doctor said Rehnquist "had also gone to the lobby in his pajamas in order to try to escape."

Rehnquist had been taking nearly three times the recommended maximum daily dosage of the drug. His delusions came when doctors at George Washington University Hospital took him off it. Eventually, they put him back on Placidyl and weaned him off slowly until he was cured of his dependence.

The FBI conducted an extensive investigation into Rehnquist's drug dependence at the request of the Senate Judiciary Committee during his 1986 confirmation hearings to become chief justice.

Rehnquist's file was released to media and lawyers this week as part of a public records request. Rehnquist died in September 2005 and because his privacy could no longer be violated, the FBI OK'd its release.

The FBI was also asked to investigate Democrats who were set to testify against Rehnquist at the 1986 hearing, the file showed. The Democrats were set to testify Rehnquist intimidated minority voters in the early 1960s as a Republican Party official in Arizona.

It's not clear if the bureau ever did investigate the Democrats, however a memo in the file shows then-Assistant Attorney General John Bolton, the most-recent United Nations Ambassador for the U.S., approved the investigation and said he would "accept responsibility should concerns be raised about the role of the FBI."

Rehnquist first took his seat as associate justice in 1972 and served on the court until his death.