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Three sentences. That was all it took for Chief Justice William Rehnquist on Thursday night to calm an entire city by indicating he was not about to announce his retirement. The brief statement instantly reoriented the discussion of Supreme Court vacancies back to the only one that exists — namely, the one that will occur when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retires. But like any words that emanate from the Supreme Court, Rehnquist’s statement is subject to interpretation. Deprived of rumors on Friday, court watchers soon set about parsing his statement to detect hidden, originalist or even modern “living Constitution” meanings. In other words, what would Justice Antonin Scalia read into the statement, as opposed to what Justice William Brennan Jr. would take from it? Here, sentence by sentence, are some alternate and whimsical theories about what Rehnquist said: 1. “I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement.” Well, “rest” is something humans — with the exception of teenagers — do for relatively short periods of time. So is Rehnquist just putting the speculation on hold briefly? Or does he mean “rest” in a more permanent sense, as in “rest in peace”? Some insight might be drawn from the word “imminent” later in the sentence. Imminent means “about to happen,” but what does that concept mean? At the time of the Framers of the Constitution, things moved slowly, so “imminent” in the originalist sense might mean as long as it takes for a horse to take Rehnquist’s retirement message from New York City, where the Court first set up shop, to Washington, D.C. Under a more modernist view, in a time of high-speed Internet, “imminent” can be measured in nanoseconds. So perhaps Rehnquist was only trying to squelch rumors that he would retire in the next second or so, and all bets are off beyond that. Another possibility: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “imminent” in colonial days was sometimes confused with the word “eminent,” suggesting that Rehnquist was making a veiled reference to the Court’s recent and controversial eminent domain ruling, Kelo v. City of New London. 2. “I am not about to announce my retirement.” This is a vexing sentence to interpret, especially when read aloud in different tones of voice. Was it drafted in a moment of high dudgeon, meant to convey that what Rehnquist really means is, “How dare you people think I am about to retire?” Or is a more monotone reading appropriate, meaning only that he is not on the verge of announcing his retirement? An appeal to precedent might yield an answer. In one recent encounter with journalists camped on his front steps in Arlington, Va., when asked about his retirement plans, Rehnquist said the answer was “for me to know and for you to find out.” Rehnquist can be playful, so that reply was probably meant to recall a schoolyard retort from his childhood. But it suggests that this second sentence of his Thursday-night statement carries at least a hint of resentment. 3. “I will continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits.” This is the most unambiguous sentence of the three, but it is unusual coming from Rehnquist and could draw criticism from conservatives. It is, after all, a clear example of judicial activism, because it leaves the decision to a single unelected judge who must determine — unchecked — what “as long as my health permits” really means. Despite the ambiguities, the statement is classic Rehnquist, pithy and unembellished. And the meanings of its mandate are clear: First, Rehnquist is not as unhealthy as many had feared, and second, it is safe for hundreds of overwrought Washingtonians to exhale and even, perhaps, to leave on vacation for a while.

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