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Commentary: Conservative Supreme Court is Bush's legacy

  • Story Highlights
  • First Monday in October marks the opening of the new Supreme Court term
  • It's a safe bet conservative line will prevail on key issues, Jeffrey Toobin says
  • Toobin: President Bush appointees should have decades to leave their mark
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The first Monday in October -- the traditional start of a new Supreme Court term -- comes this year at a dismal political moment for President Bush. With his popularity shattered, his majority in Congress gone and his war in Iraq stalemated, the president can point to few victories in his second term. But Monday is a reminder of what may be his most enduring triumph: the transformation of the Supreme Court.

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin is author of "The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court."

Bush has had only two appointments to the court -- the same as Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush. But the current president has made the most of his choices, naming two justices, John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., very much in his own image -- unapologetically conservative and determined to change the status quo. Indeed, the Roberts court might just as well be known as the Bush court.

It took about a year for the new chief justice to get up to speed, but last year Roberts delivered major changes on the court. The replacement of the moderate Sandra Day O'Connor by Alito gave Roberts near-total control of the court; the two newcomers were invariably joined by Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and usually by Anthony Kennedy.

Decisions narrowing abortion rights, limiting school integration, reducing the barriers between church and state all reflected Roberts' agenda -- and Bush's. On the final day of the term, Stephen Breyer, the Clinton appointee, was left to complain that it was "not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much." That's precisely what Bush appointed Roberts and Alito to do.

This coming year, the prospect is for more of the same. The court will likely address such issues as the constitutionality of gun control and the status of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the justices already have agreed to resolve two hot-button issues: whether photo ID requirements for voters discriminate against poor and minority citizens, and whether lethal injections constitute cruel and unusual punishment. It's not hard to discern the conservative line on all these issues, and it's a safer bet than in many years that that is the view that will prevail.

So in the fall of Bush's discontent, as he struggles for relevance in the waning days of his term, he can take solace in the changes he has wrought in the Supreme Court. For Bush, the better news is that while he has about 15 months left in the Oval Office, his nominees to the court -- both in their 50s -- likely have several decades in which to leave their mark.


Jeffrey Toobin is CNN's senior legal analyst.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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