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. …