It was another rock-'em, sock-'em leave-'em gloating or griping last day of the U.S. Supreme Court term. As they have so many times in the past, the justices saved some of their juiciest decisions until the last possible moment, giving professional Supreme Court watchers and average Jacks and Jills plenty to contemplate.
On one hot June day, the Supremes struck down a Nebraska statute that outlawed late-term abortions; allowed the Boy Scouts to ban gay members and scoutmasters; upheld a federal program that lets public funds pay for computers and other educational equipment for parochial schools; and still found time to clear the way for little Elian to return Cuba. Not bad for a morning's work.
And whether you love or hate the decisions, they were a good reminder of why the most enduring decision a president can make is to appoint a Supreme Court justice. The most senior of the current court is Chief Justice William Rehnquist, appointed by President Nixon 29 years ago, (though it was President Ronald Reagan who elevated Rehnquist to the job of chief). Nixon resigned from the presidency in disgrace and has since passed away. But Rehnquist is still having a real and significant impact on the life of the nation.
By and large a president's philosophy is carried out by his Supreme Court choices, but not always. Dwight Eisenhower reportedly fumed over the liberal bent of Earl Warren, the chief justice he appointed. And presidents can also send mixed messages with their appointees. George Bush gave us both David Souther, who has become a pillar of the court's moderate to liberal wing, and Clarence Thomas, who votes the conservative line every time.
Both of President Bill Clinton's appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer, usually vote together on the liberal side, but they two can diverge. This week Breyer voted for federal funding of teaching aids for religious schools; Ginsburg voted against.
As for what's ahead, well, not every president gets to appoint even one justice. Jimmy Carter was shut out. But considering the ages of some of the justices, the likelihood is that the next president will get at least one shot at the court. And there is no doubt, especially considering that recent abortion cases have been decided so narrowly, that a nominee's real or perceived position on abortion will be the central factor that governs any choice.
The president's options will be limited by the composition of the U.S. Senate, which must approve any nominationAnd since the Senate is expected to stay Republican, it's a safe bet that if George W. Bush is elected, he will feel free to appoint conservative justices who will be likely to strike down the landmark Roe vs. Wade case that grants virtually unfettered abortion rights to adult women.
If Al Gore is elected, he will want to appoint a pro-choice justice. But as President Clinton did, Gore will have to find someone who has not spoken or written about abortion, but whom he can trust to uphold Roe vs. Wade.
And that brings us back to the voters. Americans tend to vote on issues like the economy. We worry about what a president will do on Social Security or Medicare or education. We rarely focus on questions involving interpretation of the law or the Constitution.
But if we really want our votes to matter, we should think not only about whom we pick to reside in the White House, but also what that choice will mean for the nine men and women who will spend countless hours secluded in another white marble temple just a few miles away: The U.S. Supreme Court.