Rehnquist’s death affects students

atalie Pillsbury

The death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist will mean a significant shift in the makeup of the Supreme Court and a subsequent change in the political climate of the country. The full extent of these changes and how they could effect students, however, are subject to interpretation.

“I’m a Democrat and of course I’m sad to see that now Bush gets to nominate two justices,” said Dylan Griffiths, a recent justice studies alumna with a minor in political science. “I don’t think it (Rehnquist’s death) will have that much effect on the court because Bush will be pretty hard-pressed to find someone more conservative than Rehnquist.”

Griffiths said she was pleased with Bush’s nomination of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States because he is considerably more moderate than Justice Antonin Scalia, who was considered a likely candidate for chief justice.

“A lot might hinge on who replaces (Sandra Day) O’Connor,” said Jason MacDonald, assistant professor in the department of political science.

MacDonald said that Roberts’ nomination for chief justice could shift the attention from Roberts to the nominee replacing O’Connor.

“If Roberts replaces Rehnquist, the court might become more moderate,” MacDonald said. “Roberts is on record as being more moderate than Rehnquist. He has said under testimony that Roe v. Wade is the ‘law of the land.’”

MacDonald acknowledges that this opinion is not a conventional view.

Americans have come to expect that abortions should be available, which makes it unlikely that the court will overturn Roe v. Wade, regardless of who is confirmed to the Supreme Court, MacDonald said.

Other issues such as affirmative action and funding for student loans could potentially be affected by the Supreme Court changes.

“It is possible that the Supreme Court would be less hospitable to affirmative action of any kind,” said Thomas Hensley, professor emeritus and assistant to the chair in the political science department.

The court has gradually shifted to become less supportive of affirmative action, and assuming the shift in the court will be toward the conservative side, even a small change could affect this issue.

“Some people argue that Republicans are interested in rolling back government interference in private matters,” MacDonald said.

This could affect matters in which the government aids the underprivileged, such as supporting student loans. Liberal constituencies are suspicious of a rollback of the welfare state.

“I’m very skeptical of that suspicion because from an electoral standpoint I don’t see how they can get away with it,” MacDonald said.

It could be a long-term goal, however, to set precedents that favor a rollback in government assistance in private matters such as welfare, public health and aid for higher education, MacDonald said.

President Bush is under extreme pressure to nominate a woman or minority to replace O’Connor.

“I would be absolutely shocked if he (Bush) named a white male,” Hensley said. He said that he strongly thinks Bush will nominate a woman.

Republicans have been actively trying to court Latino voters.

“If a Latino or Hispanic justice is nominated, it would make sense in a way that is consistent with Republican electoral goals,” MacDonald said. “Republicans have not been doing well with female voters since 1992. Even so, it is my hunch, based on an assumption, that supporters of a female nominee are not within constituencies that are part of Republican plans. The potential to reach out to Latinos is more attractive and feasible.”

Although there is much speculation surrounding the vacancies and how their replacements will affect the ideological makeup of the court, it appears to be a consensus opinion that there will not be any major rulings changes.

It is impossible to predict what will happen, but the history of the court is one of moderation, Hensley said.

Contact general assignment reporter Natalie Pillsbury at [email protected].