Next President's Impact on Courts Will Be Powerful FEDERAL JUDGESHIPS. Federal Courts Now Have Conservative Flavor

Article excerpt

ONE of the most lasting and powerful legacies of the next president will be the federal judges he chooses for lifetime appointments to the courts.

The coming presidential term may present an unusually significant opportunity to affect the increasingly conservative judicial branch of government.

On the Supreme Court, court watchers expect at least two and as many as five justices to retire during the next four years. This means it is possible, though perhaps not likely, that the next president could appoint a complete majority to the high court.

President Reagan had only three Supreme Court openings to fill. President Bush has had two during his term. Between them, they transformed the court's reading of Constitutional rights.

The court has drawn back on protecting accused criminals, abortion rights, civil-rights mandates, and guarding the free exercise of religion. It has also strengthened property rights.

At lower levels of the judiciary, vacancies are unusually high. A year ago, 104 district and appellate judgeships were vacant - about 17 percent of the total - because the Bush administration was slow in naming new judges.

Now White House nominations are bogging down in the Senate confirmation process. Democrats running the Judiciary Committee are awaiting the outcome of the election. Fifty nominees are currently awaiting committee hearings and another nine are awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.

Reagan and Bush appointees dominate the entire federal bench. Roughly 80 percent of federal judges were appointed during the last 12 years of Republican administrations.

Mr. Bush's appointees are at least as conservative as Mr. Reagan's, according to Robert Carp, a political scientist at the University of Houston who has coded all published federal district court decisions into a computer program for analysis.

The decisions of the Bush judges are in fact more conservative than those of the Reagan judges, he says, but that may be partly explained by Bush judges beginning their service under a more conservative Supreme Court. Federal judges are, to a large extent, guided by Supreme Court decisions.

At the Supreme Court level, Bush's appointments have been mixed. His first choice, David Souter, has joined Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy to form a center bloc on the court. Their decisions, such as one last year affirming most but not all of Pennsylvania's abortion restrictions, appear generally to run close to the center of public opinion. …