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The election & the Supreme Court

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Many hot button issues will be debated in the forthcoming presidential campaign. Among the hottest topics likely will be the war against terrorism, rising energy costs and the softening American economy. Many voters, however, will be oblivious to perhaps the most searing issue -– the likely appointment of one or more Supreme Court justices.

Supreme Court justices, once confirmed, are appointed for life. Hence, their influence over American society and its laws can span more than three decades. Long after a president leaves office, his appointee(s) will be rendering decisions that will impact the life and liberty of all Americans.

(For example, President Ford left office more than 30 years ago, but one of his nominees, John Paul Stevens, remains on the court.)

More times than not, a Supreme Court nominee will possess ideological and philosophical views that closely mirror those of the president making the appointment. Hence, a president with a more liberal view of the Constitution will usually nominate a like-minded jurist. A president with a conservative or constructionist view of our nation’s guiding document will be more likely to favor an individual with the same understanding.

A recent Supreme Court ruling on the Second Amendment illustrates just how significant a president’s appoints can be.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that individual Americans do have the right to own guns. The decision overturned a Washington D.C. law that banned private handgun possession.

What I found most interesting about the decision was that it was a 5-4 ruling, meaning that four of the justices were more than willing to uphold the law. Two of the judges that voted to uphold gun ownership were recent appointments — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito — made by President Bush.

If John Kerry had won the presidency in 2004, the outcome of the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Second Amendment likely would have been entirely different. I do not know who he would have nominated for the two vacant seats on our nation’s high court, but it would have not been jurists like Roberts and Alito.

The ruling was but the latest 5-4 decision on significant social issues. The 2007 ruling that upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortion was decided by a one-vote margin, as was the decision this year that ruled the death penalty could not be used on child rapists.

The next president, be he John McCain or Barack Obama, likely will have the responsibility of appointing one, and perhaps two, Supreme Court justices.

Stevens is the oldest of the judges at 88 and is considered by some to be the most liberal of the current justices. It is very likely Stevens will retire during the next few years.

Three other justices are in their 70s and one will turn 70 in a few weeks. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 75 and survived a bout with colon cancer in 1999. Both Stevens and Ginsburg voted with the liberal wing in all three aforementioned cases.

Antonin Scalia is 72 years old, and Anthony Kennedy will turn 72 July 23. Scalia voted with the conservative wing on all three cases, and Kennedy — the swing vote on significant cases — sided with the conservatives on two of them. Stephen Breyer will turn 70 in August. He joined the liberal wing in all three cases.

Though not likely, it is entirely possible that any one the aforementioned septuagenarians could choose to retire during the next president’s term in office. Even 68-year-old David Souter has said he looks forward to retiring back in New Hampshire.

Given the fact that one justice could have swung the ruling on issues of abortion, the death penalty and the Second Amendment, it is clear that the next president’s position on possible Supreme Court nominees is of monumental significance.

So while I want to know Obama and McCain’s views on terrorism, energy and the economy, I am intensely interested in what kind of justices they will appoint to the Supreme Court. Will they nominate strict constructionists like Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts or will they prefer more liberal jurists in the vein of Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer? Inquiring voters want to know.
Kelly Boggs, whose column appears each week in Baptist Press, is editor of the Baptist Message, the newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, which is online at baptistmessage.com.

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  • Kelly Boggs