WASHINGTON – With hot topics like Iraq and the economy on their minds,President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry may be ignoring what some are calling a crucial election issue – likely openings on the Supreme Court,according to court experts.
It's been a record 10 years since former President Bill Clinton appointed Stephen Breyer to the court,and the next president could appoint one to three new justices. The most likely retirees are Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens,according to Bruce Fein,a conservative constitutional lawyer.
“This election is important because of how sharply divided the court is,” said Alliance for Justice president Nan Aron,pointing to the court's' many 5-4 decisions. “Clearly,just one vote can make a huge difference.” Aron founded the Alliance,a national organization of liberal advocacy groups,in 1979.
At the National Press Club Monday,the presidential election's impact on the future of the Supreme Court framed a heavy debate. A bipartisan panel of four included representatives of the Center for American Progress and Americans for Tax Reform,in addition to Aron and Fein. They discussed how new justices would affect pivotal constitutional cases concerning abortion,affirmative action and gay marriage.
While evenly divided by political party,the debaters agreed that Bush and Kerry should be questioned about how they would choose judicial nominees. Otherwise,the panel split 2-2 on every issue. Grover Norquist,Americans for Tax Reform president,and Fein represented the Republican perspective; John Podesta,Center for American Progress president and President Clinton's chief of staff,and Aron spoke for the Democrats.
The debaters used a majority of the 90-minute session for a contentions discussion of abortion and the future of Roe v. Wade.
Fein said if Bush is re-elected he will appoint justices who think Roe v. Wade,the landmark 1973 abortion case,was wrongly decided.
“I don't think there would be any revolution if Roe v. Wade was overturned,” Fein said. “The vast majority of laws would remain undisturbed.”
Norquist agreed,saying the court's power over abortion is minimal because justices can only rule on laws Congress has already passed. The Supreme Court alone cannot make abortion illegal,Norquist said.
Still,Aron said the Supreme Court is vital in determining the future of women's reproductive rights. She said the court has traditionally tackled abortion and other difficult,so-called thorny cases that legislators shy away from.
“Bush will turn back the clock on so many of the rights that we cherish,” Aron said. With Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as his role models,Aron said Bush would likely appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Panel members also debated the role of filibusters during Supreme Court nominations. Members of Senate can filibuster,or speak for an unlimited time,to block legislation or nominations.
The Republicans said today's Senate Democrats use filibusters unconstitutionally when they block nominations.
Podesta retorted: “If conservatives want to get up in the morning and see what obstructions look like,all they've got to do is look in the mirror.”
Fein said that if O'Connor leaves the court during a second Bush administration,affirmative action will go away with her. Podesta replied by quoting the late representative Barbara Jordan,D-Texas,as saying,“‘We the people' needs to include more people.”
Podesta said a Kerry court would follow constitutional standards to make laws more inclusive,not less.
On the environment,Fein said,“A Bush court would make the government pay to preserve lands that people only want to traipse around once in 10 years.”
The Supreme Court begins its annual session Oct. 4.