Future Supreme Court justices

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin says that tenure on the Supreme Court will be an agenda item this year at both the state and the federal level.

(Kunin) Every elected official likes to believe that he or she left a legacy – some lasting accomplishments that cannot be erased by time. When I look back, there’s one area where I know I left a mark on the turning pages of the calendar.

That is the Vermont Supreme Court.

I was fortunate to be able to appoint three of the five justices and the first woman to the court. This was the court that led to the enactment of the civil unions law and a more equitable method of
distributing state aid to education.

In Vermont a Supreme Court justice serves for six years, but most are re-instated by the legislature and serve longer.

When we vote for a governor, we also vote for the state Supreme Court. What is less well known is that when we vote for a president, we also vote for the United States Supreme Court.

The court helps create the balance of powers in our federal government to assure that no branch of government goes too far in any direction. The next president will likely appoint three, and possibly four, Supreme Court justices.

The court today is almost evenly divided on hot issues, with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor often casting the swing vote. Many court-watchers believe it will take just one change on the Supreme Court to swing the court to the right on such issues as civil rights, abortion, the environment, public education, and voting rights.

No doubt, any court nominee by either candidate for the presidency is certain to receive careful scrutiny from the Senate. The hearings will be long and contentious. But experience has shown that the president usually gets his nominee confirmed, as was the case with Justice Clarence Thomas.

One possibility would be to have a Hispanic-American nominated to the court, filling in a new gap in the makeup of the court, just as the first Jew and the first African-American found a seat on the court.

It would be hard to oppose the first ethnic minority nominee without being accused of racism, just as it was difficult for many senators to oppose Clarence Thomas.

Many have called this election “the most important choice in our lifetime.” The war, the economy, the environment – these are all the questions which will be decided by the next president and the Congress. But that third branch of government, the Supreme Court – designed for checks and balances – will, in the end, have the last word.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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