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Long-Term Impact of Clinton Appointees


AS President Clinton and his aides vet candidates to succeed retiring Justice Harry Blackmun on the United States Supreme Court, they have several criteria in mind. The president would like to nominate a person who will be easily confirmed by the Senate, whose qualifications will be lauded by experts and the news media, and, perhaps, who will broaden the racial, ethnic, or gender diversity of the high court's members.

And while this administration, like previous ones, would never admit to applying a political or ideological ``litmus test'' to judicial appointments, it is virtually certain that the nominee will share the generally liberal world view and judicial philosophy of the Clinton White House and its major constituencies. For that reason, the next associate justice is not likely to change the outcome of many of the high-profile cases the court will decide next term. Mr. Clinton's first appointee to the high bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has had little immediate impact on case results, since conservative jurists still hold the majority. But if Clinton's two Supreme Court appointments, thus far, will not signal any sea change in constitutional jurisprudence, the long-term significance of these appointments may be considerable:

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* It is foreseeable that Justice Ginsburg and the new member could eventually become part of a liberal-to-moderate majority on the High Court, especially if Clinton has a second term. Conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as well as more liberal Justice John Paul Stevens, could retire from the Supreme Court within the next few years.

* Ginsburg and the new justice may start to influence their colleagues' thinking on some issues, through both private arguments and written opinions, in ways that will not be immediately apparent.

Clinton may also be considering another criterion: political experience. Some experts contend that the Supreme Court currently is packed too densely with people who were elevated from federal appellate courts. These experts say an element of ``diversity'' absent from the court is broad involvement in the legislative and executive branches.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Education Secretary Richard Riley are thought to be on the list of candidates the president is considering.

Discussions about philosophies of potential Supreme Court justices often ignore the fact that most of the cases decided by the bench deal not with highly charged constitutional issues, but rather with technical and nonideological legal problems in such fields as taxes and commercial relations. It is in these areas that Supreme Court justices have their biggest impact, quantitatively, on American law.

Some upcoming Court decisions:

Church and state. The justices will decide, in Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, whether the state of New York violated the Constitution's ban against an ``establishment'' of religion when it created a special school district to educate disabled children in an Orthodox Jewish community, or if the district is a reasonable accommodation of religion.

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Free speech. Whether buffer zones created around an abortion clinic in Florida by a judge to ban or limit pro-life speech can stand. Did the judge violate the First Amendment rights of anti-abortion protesters? And did a city-beautification ordinance in Missouri that barred a homeowner from displaying an antiwar sign on her property violate her free-expression rights?

Voting rights. A Georgia case, Holder v. Hall, asks if a county government with a single elected commissioner, rather than a multi-member board, effectively disenfranchises black voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. In three related Florida cases the question is whether a state-legislative redistricting plan adequately empowered Hispanic voters.

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