By Alan Wirzbicki | GLOBE STAFF, OCTOBER 01, 2012 –
Deeply divided, held in low esteem by the public, and battered by harsh criticism from both left and right, the US Supreme Court returns to work on Monday amid speculation that its makeup and ideological balance could change, perhaps significantly, depending on who is elected president in November.
The nine justices have an average age of 67. Several have battled health problems, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg will pass their 80th birthdays in the next four years. Though court-watchers tend to tiptoe around discussions of the longevity of justices, who have lifetime appointments, they say it would be no surprise if more than one were to retire in the next four years.
Which justices leave — and whether President Obama or Mitt Romney wins the chance to nominate their replacements — could tip the balance on a court that has issued a string of 5-to-4 decisions on contentious issues, culminating in the ruling in June that enraged conservatives by upholding Obama’s signature health care legislation. The next president will also be able to put his stamp on federal circuit and appeals courts.
“It’s one of the president’s most lasting legacies,” said Susan Low Bloch, a professor at Georgetown Law Center. “It’s amazing to me that people don’t pay more attention.”
For now, the Supreme Court is focused on its fall agenda, including an affirmative action case it is scheduled to hear next week that could end the use of race in public university admissions.
But the possibility that the court could also soon rule on same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and the scope of environmental and business regulations has heightened anxiety on both sides about its future composition.