President Clinton said Tuesday that a Republican victory in the November elections could move the Supreme Court "way to the right" and lead to a new era of "ultraconservative judicial activism."
"We're just a vote or two away from reversing Roe vs. Wade," the president said, referring to the 1973 ruling that created a national right to abortion. And it is likely the next president will appoint two new justices, he added.
"Virtually no Americans understand how many of our other rights [beyond abortion] are at stake," Clinton said, if the new president appoints decidedly conservative judges.
The president was speaking to People for the American Way, the liberal civil liberties group that has focused on the Supreme Court as a crucial issue in the presidential elections.
Its leaders say new justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas could tilt the court sharply to the right. And the impact, they say, will be felt on issues ranging from environmental protection and worker's rights to religion, the death penalty and gay rights.
In his comments to the officially nonpartisan group, Clinton avoided a direct endorsement of Vice President Al Gore or criticism of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Nonetheless, he told the activists they should "go to the telephones" and tell others about the election's potential effect on the courts.
Conservative activists also have focused on the future of the high court, but Bush's team chose to play down the issue during the fall campaign.
Earlier this year, the Texas governor reassured conservatives by pointing to Scalia and Thomas as his favorites. The two are considered the most conservative members of the nine-member court.
When asked about Justice David H. Souter, the New Hampshire judge who was appointed by President Bush, the governor refused to comment. Conservatives have viewed Souter's nomination as a disaster because he has voted regularly with the liberals. "No More Souters" has become a rallying cry for some Republican activists.
Clinton said his judicial nominees have been the "most diverse" ever, since nearly half were women or minorities. They were also "relatively non-ideological and mainstream," he added.
Clinton's two Supreme Court appointees--Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer--were endorsed by Senate Republicans such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah.). On the bench, they have proved to be moderate liberals.
In his remarks Tuesday, the president said the recent conservative rulings restricting Congress could have a long-term effect that is little understood. The series of 5-4 rulings have bolstered states' rights and limited federal power.
Earlier this year, for example, the court struck down the Violence Against Women Act, a law that allowed victims of sexual assaults to sue their attackers in federal court. The justices also stripped the nation's 5 million state employees of their job protection under the federal anti-age discrimination act.
"There's an incredibly energetic debate going on now at the Supreme Court level," Clinton said, regarding the balance of power between Washington and the states . "It will only intensify in the years ahead and will swing one way or another as a result of these elections."