Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Reagan's policy stamp. High court nominees meant to strengthen President's social agenda for many years

By Charlotte SaikowskiStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 1986


The Reagan era will not end in 1989. With his two Supreme Court appointments, President Reagan clearly hopes to extend the influence of his presidency beyond his term of office and solidify a more conservative philosophy throughout American society.

Skip to next paragraph

During his first term, the President did not push his social agenda except rhetorically. He chose instead to concentrate on getting the economy moving, curbing government, and building up the military.

But in his second term he is vigorously using the judicial system to put his conservative imprint on social policies, from affirmative action to prayer in the schools. The appointments of William H. Rehnquist as chief justice of the United States and of federal judge Antonin Scalia to replace him as associate justice, if confirmed by the Senate, will lend impetus to this effort.

``We are hoping to put on the court . . . a judicial philosopher who shares the President's philosophy and is young enough to remain on the court for many, many years,'' a senior White House official said after the announcement this week. ``That is a very pleasant prospect for the President and others in this administration.''

Constitutional scholars do not see a dramatic change on the court, however. Although the Justice Department under Attorney General Edwin Meese III has pursued a more aggressive posture on major social issues, it has not had much success. In such areas as school busing, separation of church and state, and abortion, the Supreme Court has by and large rebuffed the Reagan administration.

``The court has not been very responsive to Reagan on social issues, and I don't think that Scalia will change that outcome,'' says A. E. Dick Howard, a professor of law at the University of Virginia. ``But over the long haul you might see change that comes about through the combination of two powerful minds -- Rehnquist and Scalia, both of whom have a fully thought-out conservative philosophy.''

With Mr. Rehnquist assigning opinions and Mr. Scalia at his right elbow, Professor Howard suggests, ``we would begin to see a persuasive judicial strategy . . . that could influence justices who are moderately conservative.''

The President seeks to reduce what he regards as the Supreme Court's overextended role in trying to resolve social and legal problems rather than interpreting the law. He would leave it to Congress and state legislatures to frame policies.

The net result of ``judicial restraint,'' conservative scholars argue, would not be to undo policies favored by the majority of the public. It would simply leave these policies for local communities to decide. ``If the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade [the abortion decision], most communities in the country would keep the right of abortion,'' says legal scholar Bruce Fein. ``The same is true of prayer in the schools. The country would not vote except in a few communities to reinject prayer in the schools.''

But Mr. Fein does see the post-Burger court making a tangible if not dramatic shift to restraint in such areas as libel law, administrative law, presidential power, and aid to parochial schools.