September 2, 2008

Election Will Impact Supreme Court

By Murray Light

The president who succeeds George W. Bush almost certainly will have at least one or perhaps even more Supreme Court vacancies to fill. The average age of the court's members currently is 68, with seven of the nine members exceeding that age. One or even more court members almost certainly will opt to retire during the presidency of Bush's successor.

The oldest of the current members is John Paul Stevens, now 88. He was appointed to the court by President Ford and took his seat in 1975.

Next in line in terms of age is the only woman member of the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nominated by President Clinton. She took her seat in 1993. She currently is 75 years of age, and has given no indication that she is considering retirement. That, of course, does not mean she cannot make that decision at any time soon.

Following in age on the current court, we have two members who are 72. One, Justice Antonin Scalia, nominated by President Reagan, took his seat on the court in 1986. The other, Justice Arthur Kennedy, also nominated for the court by President Reagan, took his seat in February, 1988. Kennedy has been an enigma on the court. He has cast his vote with the liberal justices sometimes and with the conservative members of the court in other instances. He has long been considered the swing member of the court, voting with the liberal faction on some issues and with conservatives on others.

Having named by chronological age the oldest members of the current court, I have to note that it does not indicate which member of the court might be the first to retire. There is no mandatory retirement age for members of the Supreme Court.

The most recent retiree from the court was Sandra Day O'Connor, who was named to the court by President Reagan and took her seat in September 1981. She retired from the court on Jan. 31, 2006 at the age of 78 to care for her ailing husband.

The court in its last term made some of its most significant decisions by 5 to 4 votes, an indication that it is just one justice away from solidifying a far-right majority. One more appointment that is conservative would shift the balance of power to the far- right bloc in the court.

If Kennedy were the first of the so-called senior members of the court to retire it would pose a real interesting quandary for the new president. Does he nominate a conservative or a liberal-leaning person to replace Kennedy? That new member could set the tone for the new court and the nation.

Does the nation's electorate realize that the man they elect to replace Bush will nominate the next member of the U.S. Supreme Court and the significance of that nomination? It is a rarity when the president's nominee for the court is rejected. That is only one of the numerous very important decisions the new president will have to make and it should be one that is given careful consideration.

The next Supreme Court has numerous issues to decide. Will it uphold laws that protect the environment, worker's rights and the rights of racial and religious minorities? Will it protect women's rights on abortion? As I have noted, it will only take one more vote to threaten those hard-won rights.

The nation's conservative constituency needs not be concerned. Its voice always will be heard from the chief justice, John Roberts, along with that of Clarence Thomas. Roberts is the youngest member of the court at 53 and Thomas is 60.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News

Originally published by SPECIAL TO THE NEWS.

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