With the one-hundred-day mark of George W. Bush’s presidency still visible in the rearview mirror, the “compassionate conservative” campaign mantra appears to be tilting more and more to the conservative rather than the compassionate. The left can take some solace in the ethnic diversity of his appointments and his emphasis on education while the right celebrates his insistence on huge tax relief and his appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general. Bush’s true colors, however, will not appear until he starts nominating folks to the federal judiciary. A place on the federal bench is forever, or at least for life, and a president’s judicial appointments reveal his fundamental beliefs in a way that more transitory political moves don’t. The stakes will never be higher, nor more high-profile, than when Bush fills vacancies that occur on the U.S. Supreme Court.Four spots could come open during the next four years, covering the court’s entire ideological spectrum. On the right is 76-year-old chief justice William Rehnquist; on the court’s liberal wing, John Paul Stevens, the eldest justice at 81, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 68, are both cancer survivors. Sandra Day O’Connor, also a cancer survivor at 71, is regarded as a centrist. The Washington rumor mill has Stevens and O’Connor leaving as early as this summer.
Depending on who leaves and how soon, the makeup of the court could change dramatically. If Bush were to act on his stated admiration for justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, he could swing the court on abortion, affirmative action, and an assortment of other individual-rights and federal-powers issues and change the American political scene for the next two decades.