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Inside Politics

Hot-button legal issues at stake in election

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
America Votes 2004
Supreme Court
George W. Bush
Capital Punishment

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The political stakes have made the issue of possible U.S. Supreme Court retirements part of the election-year rhetoric, thanks to aggressive outreach by a number of special-interest groups.

"Get mad. Get active. Get generous," blares the Web site for the National Abortion Rights Action League which supports Democratic presidential contender John Kerry over President Bush.

NARAL joined Planned Parenthood, and the Alliance of Justice on the Supreme Court steps recently to voice their fear that fear the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion could someday be overturned.

"The issue of reproductive issues is one of a number of civil rights and civil liberties that are threatened if we see one or two Scalia/Thomas justices on the Supreme Court," said Elliot Mincberg, of the People for the American Way.

But conservative leaders downplay any major shift by the justices when it comes to abortion.

"They would not in my judgment vote to reverse a precedent of such long-standing status, where there are settled expectations, laws that have grown up around the Roe vs. Wade precedent," said Bruce Fein, a prominent Washington attorney who helped President Reagan make judicial nominations when he served in the White House.

The future of the death penalty also could come into play, depending on whether conservatives continue to dominate the Court. The justices have generally upheld the right of states to allow capital punishment, but they have also begun taking a closer look at procedures used to execute those on death row.

A Court decision is expected in coming months on whether juvenile killers can be put to death. Execution of the mentally retarded was banned two years ago.

The political debate on the issue is, as expected, divided ideologically.

"If Kerry is elected, the death penalty is on its last legs," warned Fein.

"I think that's a bit of an exaggeration," countered Mincberg. "If you look at the last Democratic president we had, President Clinton was personally in favor of the death penalty under some circumstances."

Overall, a majority of Americans (51 percent) approve of how the Court is handling its job, according to a Gallup survey from September. That is down from the 62 percent who held the same view in 2000, before the Court became involved in the recount battle over Florida's presidential vote, a decision that ultimately paved the way for President Bush to enter the White House.

While the Republican and Democratic parties have begun mobilizing their legal forces in case another Florida scenario emerges from the 2004 race, few legal analysts are predicting the Supreme Court will wind up getting involved.

But if history is any guide, the only predictable part of the Supreme Court and its nine very different justices is its unpredictability.

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