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Balance of aging Supreme Court hinges on next prez

Associated Press | 7/16/2008, 6:29 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s oldest two justices — half the court’s liberal wing — top the list of those likely to retire during the next presidential administration.

Despite 88-year-old John Paul Stevens’ and 75-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s apparent vigor, change on the Supreme Court is more likely than not over the next four years. The next president, who is tasked with appointing judges to the high court, will likely have a strong influence on whether it stays the same or veers more conservative.

With five justices 70 or older by the time the court meets again in October, interest groups and commentators have been talking about the court’s role in the presidential election. One change on a court that divides 5-4 in key cases can alter the results, and U.S. law.

But their forecasts depend on three factors: Who wins the presidency, who leaves the court and who is appointed.

Democrat Barack Obama would most likely be replacing liberal justices with like-minded successors. Republican John McCain could get the chance to fulfill a campaign pledge and put a conservative justice on the court in the mold of Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Samuel Alito.

Alito repeatedly has demonstrated the difference one justice can make on a closely divided court. More conservative rulings on abortion, religion and school desegregation almost certainly would have been different had moderate Sandra Day O’Connor not retired in 2006.

“Given the likely retirements, the next election probably will determine whether the court gets more conservative or stays ideologically the same,” said Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California, Irvine.

The Supreme Court rarely becomes a big issue in the presidential campaign and this year — with skyrocketing gas prices, steep declines in the stock market and two wars — appears to be no exception.

The unpredictably of Supreme Court retirements is another reason why the court rarely becomes an issue in presidential campaigns.

What if the justices decide to grow even older together? It has happened before. Nine of the last 10 justices who retired or died in office were at least 75; six of those were 79 or older.

No one left the court during President Jimmy Carter’s four years in office, President Bill Clinton’s second term or President George W. Bush’s first.

On the other hand, six justices ranging in age from 76 to 85 stepped down between 1986 and 1994, spanning three presidencies.

Bush had two appointments in the space of three months in 2005. He filled them with two men in their 50s, Roberts and Alito.

Goldstein predicts only Stevens will retire during the next four years and not before he surpasses Oliver Wendell Holmes — who stepped down two months shy of his 91st birthday, in 1932 — to become the oldest sitting justice. That would happen in February 2011.

Goldstein used to expect the retirement of three justices — Stevens, Ginsburg and Justice David Souter. Though only 68, Souter has made no secret of the fact that he prefers New Hampshire to Washington and intends to return there someday.

But justices find it hard to leave  unless they’re in poor health, Goldstein said.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist didn’t retire even after he was diagnosed with cancer. His death in 2005 created the second vacancy for Bush.

(Associated Press)