The Supreme Court May Just Have Helped Al Gore

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The Supreme Court may just have lent a hand to Al Gore's somewhat struggling presidential campaign. As the vice president on Monday learned that he was trailing George W. Bush in the polls, the Justices, in a 5-4 decision, struck down the six-year-old Violence Against Women Act, a measure that allows victims of rape, domestic violence and other "gender" crimes to sue their attackers in federal court. In their opinion, the prevailing Justices expressed concern that a sweeping application of the logic behind the act — that such a crime interferes with interstate commerce by making women fearful of, say, commuting from New Jersey to New York to work — could destroy individual states' rights to police and govern their own citizens. The decision has led to worries that other civil rights legislation, such as pending hate crime bills and existing racial-bias laws, could be threatened if the Court continues to have a conservative bent.

"For those who care about the Court and what kind of appointments a new president will make, this is a marker decision," says TIME legal reporter Alain Sanders. Voters, he explains, may want to take into consideration whether they want a Supreme Court that will continue to take a strict states-rights view or one that believes that not all injustices — such as civil rights — can be sorted out at the local level. For instance, says Sanders, if the current Court had applied its reasoning to core civil rights legislation adopted in mid-century, it's possible we'd still be without federal laws protecting citizens from discrimination based on race, religion or gender. If Al Gore is smart, adds Sanders, he'll capitalize on this situation by galvanizing voters with the promise that the highest court in the land will have a more liberal look under his presidency. After all, the just-dismissed law was passed by a relatively conservative Congress, and with legal analysts predicting that as many as four Justices could retire by 2004, November's winner could shape the makeup of the Supreme Court for years to come.