WASHINGTON -- It doesn't amount to a constitutional ruling, but Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has declared that the 20th century will not be over for another year. Still, he may not be so sure.
In the chief justice's annual report, released today, he begins by referring to the past century, then adds: "which, I hasten to point out, has another year to run."
The Constitution, of course, says nothing about that. And Rehnquist cited no other legal authority. Rather, he found his source in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey."
That celebrated science fiction epic released in 1968, based on a story by famed British futurist Arthur C. Clarke, suggests by its title that the year 2001 is a more significant demarcation point than 2000.
Rehnquist's clear perception about the dating, though, does not seem to persist throughout his report. On the final page, he talks of his hopes at the end of 1999, as "we enter the new century."
And, he includes a quotation that a former chief justice, Melville Weston Fuller, made about his optimism at "the close of the last century."
Fuller, too, spoke of entering "the new century." But that comment was made in a speech to Congress in 1889 -- about a decade or so early and, thus, even more ambiguous about a new beginning.
A request for clarification from the Supreme Court about Rehnquist's time cycle got the same response that usually greets a plea to resolve an ambiguity in a court opinion: no comment.
In between Rehnquist's opening and closing comments about the centuries, he cataloged the progress of the federal court system over the past year. He announced no new themes or initiatives.
In contrast with his report from a year earlier and in other recent years, the chief justice listed no new grievances about inaction or indifference in Congress about the judiciary's needs. But he did say that, in some areas, "more work remains."