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Voting for justices

With the economy dominating the 1992 presidential campaign, it's easy to overlook some important issues that never quite make it to the forefront of the political debate. You've heard it before, but it's worth repeating: Your vote for president is also a vote that can define and shape the U.S. Supreme Court.

The next president could nominate as many as four justices to the court. Depending on whether George Bush or Bill Clinton wins the election, the court either will swing further to the right or begin moving back to the left.

Presidents Reagan and Bush appointed six justices in 12 years, making good on their promise to put conservatives on the high court. Only the emergence of a centrist coalition among some of the Reagan-Bush appointees _ Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter _ has kept the court from rewriting constitutional law in a number of important areas, most notably in abortion rights. Roe hangs by a single vote.

At 83, Justice Harry Blackmun is the oldest member of the court. Justice Byron White, 75, has served on the court for more than 30 years. There are retirement rumors about both. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 68, has indicated that he has no desire to spend the rest of his life on the court. He wants to do some writing. Justice John Paul Stevens, 72, was treated for prostate cancer earlier this year.

The appointment of two or three new justices could have a dramatic impact on the court's philosophical direction and the nation's standards of justice. We don't know the kind of justices Bill Clinton would nominate, although he has mentioned Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York as someone who would make a splendid addition to the Supreme Court. We know that Bush claims to have searched high and low for the most qualified candidate for the court last year and came up with Clarence Thomas.

So tuck this in the back of your mind: When you vote for a president, you're also voting for Supreme Court justices.