Election May Alter Balance of Court Next President Will Appoint Justices Who Decide Key Issues

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- When Americans elect a new president this fall, they could also influence the Supreme Court's course on abortion, race and religion for decades to come.

Political activists of all stripes agree: The next president could profoundly reshape U.S. law with just one or two appointments. The court is that closely divided on fundamental issues.

"We're not talking about the next four years, but the next 40. This is the most important national election since 1932," said Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group.

Susan Muskett of the conservative Christian Coalition sounds a similar alarm. "We must let people know how important this election is for the court," she said.

The nation's highest court almost never has played much of a role in a presidential election. But this year may be different.

"I think we've finally gotten people to start listening," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose brief presidential campaign emphasized the chief executive's appointment power for all federal courts.

Never mind that the palatial court building on Capitol Hill has a "No Vacancy" sign out front. The election-year rhetoric is about possibilities:

--The current Supreme Court has been together for over six years -- soon to be its longest period of stability since 1870.

--The oldest justice, John Paul Stevens, is 80. Of the 99 former Supreme Court members, only five were on the bench at 84.

--Things happen. Death. Illness. Even boredom.

Retirement rumors most often focus on Stevens, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is 75, and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both cancer survivors.

Supreme Court justices almost always remain in office long after the presidents who appointed them, a lasting legacy. The average tenure since World War II -- excluding the current nine -- is 16 years.

Vice President Al Gore, the presumed Democratic nominee, is talking up the importance of any changes.

"One extra vote on the wrong side . . . would change the outcome and a woman's right to choose would be taken away," Gore said after the court split 5-4 last month in striking down a state's ban on a late-term abortion procedure, sometimes referred to as a "partial-birth" abortion. …