Supreme Court Appointees Hold Real Power in the US

By Cornwell, Rupert | The Independent (London, England), October 29, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Supreme Court Appointees Hold Real Power in the US

Cornwell, Rupert, The Independent (London, England)

BOTH ARE chasing the undecided centre ground in this most closely contested election in four decades. On a host of foreign and domestic policy issues, it's a job to distinguish between them. Yet in one crucial area George W Bush and Al Gore offer a stark, fundamental choice whose repercussions could last a generation: the future shape of the Supreme Court.

Technically, the court's function is to protect the constitution; but in a litigious country which tends to settle its differences through the judicial system, its decisions can in practice have more impact than almost any congressional legislation. The great battles of post-war America on desegregation and civil rights, abortion and affirmative action have been decided by the nine black-robed justices of the Supreme Court.

And in these times of peace, when the US government is more often than not divided and the limitations on a president's domestic powers are so evident, that reality is truer than ever. Short of war and peace, almost the most important decisions the president can take are his appointments to the Supreme Court, whose impact will persist years, even decades, after he himself has left office.

Some presidents, such as Jimmy Carter, never get to make a single one. However, actuarial luck means that either Bush or Gore could find himself choosing four justices who, once approved by the Senate, may stay in office as long as they are sound of mind and body.

On the campaign trail, the candidates may argue as if they alone will shape the future of America's education, healthcare and taxes. The truth is that on the first of those issues, 95 per cent of public spending is determined at state level; and on the other two the White House may propose but it is Congress which disposes. The choice is rarely between left and right, but between compromise and deadlock.

But the victor on 7 November could have the opportunity to remake the court - and that represents real power for the president. A Bush win would make the present conservative majority virtually watertight, and open the way for a curtailment of affirmative action, gay rights and the powers of the federal government.

Gore appointments, however, could create the first moderate- liberal court in a generation, whose consensus might persist long after the Republicans have recaptured the White House.

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