WASHINGTON - A series of highly anticipated Supreme Court rulings in recent days and weeks has injected the high court into the presidential campaign, underscoring the likelihood that the next president will almost certainly get the opportunity to dramatically shift - or solidify - the judicial balance of power for decades to come.

Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and Senator John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, have laid out vastly different visions for the Supreme Court should they win the White House. Obama pledges to appoint justices with a broader social outlook, while McCain said he wants more jurists like Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative who was appointed by President Bush.

Legal analysts say the court is likely to have at least one vacancy during the next administration: The oldest justice is 88, two others are in their 70s, and all three could be nearing retirement. And with the court sharply split between two four-member blocs on the right and the left - with Justice Anthony Kennedy often the deciding vote - a single vacancy could determine the direction of a legal institution that decides cases with wide-ranging, long-term impacts on the country.

"There are two different divisions leading in a very different direction," said Richard Garnett, a constitutional law professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Given the number of 5-to-4 decisions in controversial cases, he said, "a lot of those cases would come out differently if you had to swap out a conservative justice for a liberal one."

Almost as soon as the high court capped its term yesterday with a ruling that a ban on handguns in crime-plagued Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional, Obama and McCain both issued statements reacting to the decision on the politically explosive issue.

McCain wholeheartedly agreed with what he called "a landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom," and accused Obama of backing away from support for a handgun ban. Obama sought a middle ground, declaring that he backs gun ownership but also believes local governments should have the right to control who has them and recognizes the "need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures."

Both candidates disagreed with the high court's 5-to-4 decision on Wednesday outlawing the death penalty for child rapists. Obama, however, strongly supported the 5-to-4 ruling this month upholding the rights of detainees in the Guantanamo Bay terrorist facility to appeal in US courts, while McCain blasted it as "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."

Though both Obama and McCain would have equal opportunities as president to fill vacancies on the court, several legal analysts say McCain could have more influence to swing the court if he wins in November.

The court's four-member liberal bloc has two of the court's oldest justices - John Paul Stevens, 88, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 75 - who are considered more likely to retire from the bench during the next president's term. Meanwhile, Antonin Scalia, 72, is the only member of the conservative bloc who is older than 60, and the other three members - Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Roberts - are all 60 or younger, considered youthful for a justice serving a lifetime appointment.

That seems to indicate that the court's conservative wing will be in place for many years, while the liberal wing is more likely to have a vacancy during the next presidential administration, said Robert Gordon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. If McCain gets the opportunity to replace a liberal justice, adding another conservative justice "would make for an even more dramatic shift" in the court's direction.

Notre Dame's Garnett said that if Obama were to become president, it's likely he'd fill a vacancy on the liberal bloc with another liberal. "I don't think we see any major change" in the court's direction, he said.

Though it seems less likely, if Obama had the chance to replace one of the conservative justices "you probably would see a different result" in some of the controversial, 5-to-4 decisions, Garnett said.
On the campaign trail, Obama, a former law lecturer, has suggested that McCain would appoint strictly conservative justices who would likely overturn the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Women's groups trying to persuade Hillary Clinton's supporters to support Obama are also issuing that warning.

McCain has scolded Obama for favoring "activist judges" who make law instead of interpreting laws passed by Congress. In the Senate, McCain voted to confirm both Roberts and Alito, whom Bush also appointed. Obama opposed both.

Nevertheless, liberals and conservatives seeking votes and trying to raise money "have incentives to overstate those differences" between potential appointments by Obama and McCain, Garnett said. Voters and political analysts, he said, need to remember most of the Supreme Court's rulings "aren't sexy, 5-4 cases" but involve more boring, workaday issues that only other attorneys can appreciate.
And no matter who becomes president, "there will be a great deal of stability in the law," Garnett said. Most justices, liberal and conservative, are fair-minded and dedicated to upholding the law, and "it's dangerous to overstate the potential for change."

A Rasmussen Reports opinion poll this month, however, indicates that 60 percent of the public believes the justices have their own political agendas, and just 23 percent believes that the high court decides cases impartially. Just one-third of those polled said the Supreme Court is doing a good job.

Still, "We have a measure of judicial stability that a lot of countries really envy," Garnett said. "That's something to be proud of."
Recent rulings spotlight election's supreme stakes - The Boston Globe