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Forget the economy 

It's the courts, stupid

This fall, many voters will go to the polls and vote for "change," whatever that is, or for the guy they think will lower their monthly gasoline bill. (Only Jesus Christ himself could do that at this point, but many voters don't know that.) They'll cast their votes in reaction to the economic conditions of the moment or the situation in Iraq or whatever attack ad they saw last.

If you asked N.C. voters which circuit court jurisdiction they live in, I'm willing to bet that 90 percent or more couldn't tell you. But with their votes this fall, they'll be reshaping the courts in ways that could radically impact the country's future and their daily lives long after the Iraq war and $4-a-gallon gas are distant memories.

This part of the country happens to be covered by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Few issues this fall are more important than how that court, which hears appeals from the country's federal trial courts, is reshaped. The court, which covers an area that stretches from Maryland to South Carolina, is one of the country's most influential -- and its most conservative. It also has the most vacancies of any of the 12 circuit courts, with four of its 15 seats remaining unfilled. The retirement of four long-serving judges since 2000 has split the rest of the circuit's seats between judges appointed by Democrats and Republicans. The split is close enough that the court would lurch to the left if a Democratic president filled the remaining four.

So far, the Democrats in the U.S. Senate have blocked most of Bush's nominations to the court. The fight for control of the court has gone on for so long that one seat has remained vacant since 1994 as politicians fought an ideological battle over appointments.

The chance to solidify the Fourth Circuit was supposed to be one of the biggest but lesser-known prizes of Bush's win in 2000 and the Republicans' control of Congress. Instead, Bush and a cadre of senators failed to get their nominees past a now infamous logjam in the Senate.

"With the circuit's ideological direction hanging in the balance, there's been near-paralysis in Washington," the American Bar Association Journal recently reported. "And if the next president is a Democrat, his or her nominees could remake the 4th Circuit into a more moderate appeals court for a generation or more."

That has huge implications. For decades, the court has been what the ABA Journal describes as the "ideological testing ground for cases advancing a conservative agenda."

The Fourth Circuit covers the CIA and the Pentagon, and most cases involving the war on terror are funneled to the court, with reliably pro-government results. The court is known for its pro-capitalist, business-friendly rulings and the disdain of its conservative majority for government regulation.

Since the Supreme Court takes only a fraction of the cases the appeals courts rule on, the decisions of circuit court judges have had enormous impact because so many of them stand unchallenged.

Legal experts don't expect to see any more of President Bush's nominees to the Fourth Circuit confirmed before the upcoming elections as Senate Democrats continue to drag their feet.

Couple that with the fact that four of the nine Supreme Court Justices are over the age of 70, and the next president will have the best opportunity in decades to lurch the country's courts dramatically to the left, particularly if the Democrats manage to pick up more Senate seats along the way. A rightward shift is also possible with a win by Republican Sen. John McCain, but with the current makeup of the Senate likely to tilt even more Democratic, McCain would probably have to nominate moderate to liberal "consensus" candidates if he wanted to fill seats in the near future.

Don't think this will impact you? In one swift ruling, the Supreme Court essentially took away both liberal and conservative advocacy groups' rights to target political candidates through advertisements a few years ago, a gut-wrenching attack on the First Amendment that has reshaped how political races are fought and funneled more power into the hands of the ultra-wealthy in the name of so-called "campaign finance reform."

In the face of decades of legal rulings that could take the country in another direction entirely, the current economy, gas prices and even the Iraq war are trifling distractions of the moment. It may not feel that way now, but it will in years to come as judges legislate from the bench.

What we want that bench to look like is the most important issue this fall for voters to consider. How ironic, then, that it will probably be the least talked about.

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