OP-EDS

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October 17, 2004

Supreme Court should be key election issue

Over the course of the presidential campaign, many issues have been discussed. Iraq and the economy are at the forefront of the debate, while healthcare and education take the backseat on the campaign trail. Yet, there is one issue that has been skipped over this election year: the Supreme Court. To label the Supreme Court a non-issue in this campaign severely underestimates the importance of the coming election and the make-up of the court. Four of the nine justices are over the age of 70, and three—Chief Justice Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, and U of C alumnus John Paul Stevens—have talked about retiring in the coming years. The next president has the potential of appointing three new justices to the Supreme Court, which could change the overall judicial philosophy of the Court.

With so much at stake, it's surprising that it was not brought up until, during the second presidential debate, someone asked what kind of appointees the candidates would nominate to the Court.

So what do the candidates have in mind for Supreme Court appointments? While no specific names have been mentioned, each candidate has a model of what they want out of a nominee. Senator John Kerry stated in last Friday's debate that he wants someone who emulates the late Justice Potter Stewart. Stewart was known as a diehard centrist who based his decisions the context of the case, not political ideology and partisan politics. This model is a lofty ideal considering the bitter partisanship that grips Washington today. (It should be noted, though, that Stewart cast the "swing vote" on the 5-4 Roe v. Wade decision, arguably the most partisan decision the Supreme Court has handed down.) Kerry has also stated on the campaign trail that he does not mind appointing a pro-choice judge to the court.

President George Bush last Friday said that he would appoint judges who were "strict constructionists" and not let ideology get in the way of their decisions. Yet just after that statement he used the Dred Scott case as an example of nominees. To this writer, the move at first seemed to be one of the president's signature gaffes, but after reading the transcript, it became apparent that Dred was code for Roe. The president said that the court decided in favor of Dred Scott because the "constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights." The religious right in America view Roe in the same light: They see the decision as marking a fetus "personal property" and not a life. Could this statement have been a shout out to his base supporters that he'll take care of them by knocking down Roe? Not surprisingly, the president has also said that he would want more justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two of the most conservative justices on the court.

When you vote in November, it is important that you know what is at stake. In addition to national security and your financial security, it is important to remember that your constitutional rights are at stake as well. Whether it is being able to receive a fair trial by jury, being able to check out library books without being afraid of agents banging on your door, or being able to enter into any relationship you please is all fair game in this election. Although it does not have to be the deciding factor for your vote, the Supreme Court is the law of the land, and ultimately the law that you must obey.