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William Laney: Is There a Liberal Supreme Court in Our Foreseeable Future?

Less than a year into our current president's second term, political pundits are already conjuring up predictive pictures of what America's political landscape will look like post Obama.

We are more than three years from the next presidential election; but nevertheless, the touts have begun handicapping a 2016 horse race that will not just decide whether a Democrat or Republican heads up the federal government and leads our country. The result of that horse race could also determine something else that is, arguably, even more important.

The next president may well be in a position to decide whether the Supreme Court retains its present conservative-leaning make-up, or becomes a liberal-leaning court.

At present, it seems probable, rather than possible, that it will be a Democrat who sends Supreme Court nominations to the Senate for confirmation, for at least the next seven years. And how those nominees are likely to vote on a myriad of important issues will affect the lives of Americans for decades to come.

Hillary Clinton is a prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination for president next time around if she chooses to run (and run she will). And she will be favored to defeat whomever the Republicans put forward. The self-destructive GOP continues to alienate too many voting blocs to be considered anything but an underdog in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.

Two currently-serving conservative Justices are key to a shift in power at the Supreme Court. That shift in power would bring about a five to four edge for liberals.

At present, five Supreme Court Justices -- Chief Justice John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito -- are considered conservatives, and vote that way. Kennedy, it should be noted, has voted on rare occasions, with liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotamayor, and Elena Kagan.

Conservatives Scalia and Kennedy -- both 77 this year -- are at an age when departure from the high court in the next seven years by at least one of them is more probable than possible. Just one -- that's all it would take to change the high court balance of power.

A Clinton presidency would assure that a Democrat would be replacing any Supreme Court Justices who retire or die from now through 2016. It would take only one conservative departure -- either Scalia or Kennedy -- for a Democratic president to create a liberal high court.

Liberal-leaning Justices Ginsberg and Breyer will also move into their 80s in the next seven years, and could leave the bench as well. Obama, or Clinton, would, of course, replace them with like-thinking Justices.

There is no guarantee that a Supreme Court Justice's decision-making will agree with the thinking of the president who chose him or her. But odds are it will. And odds are there will be a liberal Supreme Court in our foreseeable future.