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A Win by McCain Could Push a Split Court to Right

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008; Page A01

For much of its term, the Supreme Court muted last year's noisy dissents, warmed to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s vision of narrow, incremental decisions and continued a slow but hardly steady move to the right.

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But as justices finished their work last week, two overarching truths about the court remained unchanged: It is sharply divided ideologically on some of the most fundamental constitutional questions, and the coming presidential election will determine its future path.

A victory by the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, would probably mean preserving the uneasy but roughly balanced status quo, since the justices who are considered most likely to retire are liberal. A win for his Republican counterpart, John McCain, could mean a fundamental shift to a consistently conservative majority ready to take on past court rulings on abortion rights, affirmative action and other issues important to the right.

"If there's one thing you can see about this court, it is that it still sits on a knife's edge," said Jeffrey L. Fisher, a Stanford University law professor who argued three cases before the justices this year.

That was readily apparent in the court's closing days, as it whipsawed from left to right and back again on the constitutional rights of terrorism suspects, individual gun ownership and the ability of government to restrict it, and the increasingly narrow view of who is eligible for the death penalty.

Each case pitted the court's four consistent conservatives against its four slightly less consistent liberals, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy returning to his role of last term as the deciding vote.

"The blockbuster cases, the really big cases, have now brought into very sharp focus how closely divided the court is on the really large and philosophically charged issues before the court," said Charles J. Cooper, a Washington lawyer who was an official in President Ronald Reagan's office of legal counsel.

It has cast "the sharpest possible focus how important the court is going to be, I should think and should hope, in the upcoming election debate," Cooper added.

The next appointment to the court will almost surely fill the seat now held by one of the court's liberals, whose average age at the beginning of next October's term will be 75. For Obama, any initial appointment would likely replace one liberal with another, albeit with a younger and perhaps more outgoing advocate for his views of the court's role.

But a McCain victory could give the conservative bloc a clear-cut majority for years to come. President Bush has provided the model with his nominations of Roberts, to continue the conservative legacy of former chief justice William H. Rehnquist, and Samuel A. Alito Jr., to replace the former justice found most frequently in the middle, Sandra Day O'Connor.

"I think on any measure one would have to agree this is a more conservative court than was the court a couple of years ago, because on any measure Justice Alito is a more conservative justice than was Justice O'Connor," said R. Ted Cruz, a former Rehnquist clerk who argued before the court several times this year as Texas's solicitor general.

"But that being said, this is very much an almost exquisitely balanced court, with Justice Kennedy remaining at the fulcrum of most -- if not practically all -- close decisions."


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