WASHINGTON – The late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist took a powerful sedative during his first decade on the high court and grew so dependent on it that he became delusional and tried to escape from a hospital in his pajamas when he stopped taking the drug in 1981, according to newly released FBI files.
The files also show that during both of Rehnquist’s confirmation battles – when he was first named to the court by President Nixon in 1971 and when President Reagan nominated him as chief justice in 1986 – the Justice Department enlisted the FBI to find out what witnesses lined up by Senate Democrats were prepared to say.
The FBI this week released 1,561 pages from its files on Rehnquist in response to Freedom of Information Act requests filed after his death in September 2005.
The fact that Rehnquist checked into George Washington University Hospital for a week in late December 1981 to be treated for back pain and dependence on a prescription drug was previously known. Journalists had noted that fall that Rehnquist’s speech was sometimes slurred on the bench.
But the files reveal dramatic new details about the length and intensity of the addiction. During its routine 1986 investigation of Rehnquist’s background, the FBI concluded that Rehnquist began taking the drug Placidyl for insomnia following back surgery in 1971, the year before he joined the court. By 1981 he apparently was taking 1,500 milligrams each night, three times the usual starting dose.
Known generically as ethchlorvynol, Placidyl is a sedative and sleep-inducing drug that is not usually prescribed for more than a week at a time. It is not an opiate and is not a painkiller, but it is addictive, and withdrawal can cause hallucinations and temporary memory loss.
Doctors interviewed by the FBI told agents that when the associate justice stopped taking the drug, he suffered paranoid delusions. One doctor said Rehnquist thought he heard voices outside his hospital room plotting against him and had “bizarre ideas and outrageous thoughts,” including imagining “a CIA plot against him” and “seeming to see the design patterns on the hospital curtains change configuration.”
At one point, a doctor told the investigators, Rehnquist went “to the lobby in his pajamas in order to try to escape.” Ultimately, the doctors concluded that the withdrawal symptoms were so severe that they began giving Rehnquist the drug again and slowly lowered the dosage until he quit taking it entirely on Feb. 7, 1982.
By 1986, the files show, all the doctors interviewed by the FBI said the former drug dependence should not affect Rehnquist’s future work on the court, and it did not become an issue in his confirmation as chief justice.
Alexander Charns, a lawyer in Durham, N.C., who was among the scholars and journalists who received the documents this week, said that in his view, they contain evidence of “the ongoing use of the FBI for political purposes, not only in the ‘60s and ‘70s but well into the 1980s.”