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March 27, 2017

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Vote cements conservative hold on US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump's shock election is likely to tip the Supreme Court firmly into the conservative camp, to the great relief of religious traditionalists, gun rights activists and powerful financial interests.

As soon as Trump takes office on Jan. 20, he can nominate a ninth justice to fill a vacant seat and restore the short-handed court to its full complement.

President Barack Obama's Republican foes have refused to confirm his pick to replace Antonin Scalia, a leading conservative voice who died in February.

Since then, the court has been equally divided between four conservative and four liberal justices, resulting in deadlocks on several cases — and in deadlocks the lower court's ruling is affirmed.

Trump "will almost surely nominate a conservative justice in the mold of Justice Scalia because it is an easy and high-profile way for him to give something to his political base," Thomas Lee of Fordham Law School told AFP.

"If so, it will restore the Supreme Court to the old status quo, where Justice (Anthony) Kennedy occupies the central swing seat."

And Trump could likely make more than one conservative appointment to the court, given the advanced age of some justices to the lifetime post. That would further cement conservatism's long rise and predominance among the black-robed justices.

'About-face on abortion'

Progressive veteran Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the most senior member of the court at 83 — nicknamed "Notorious RBG," she is as beloved for her liberal quips as for her impressive collection of jabot collars and other accessories.

She is followed in age by moderate conservative Kennedy at 80 — the court's critical swing vote — and progressive Stephen Breyer, 78.

"If one of the justices to the left of Chief Justice (John) Roberts — the liberals plus Kennedy — were to depart, that would pave the way for the court's conservatives to lead an about-face on abortion and affirmative action, and to cement victories in the areas of guns, voting and campaign finance," said Lee Epstein of Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri.

As the guardian of the Constitution, the top court rules on some of the most divisive and critical issues tearing at the American political fabric, setting legal precedent along the way.

Had Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton won instead, she could have helped the court secure a liberal majority for the first time since 1969.

In Tuesday's elections, Republicans retained their control over the Senate.

Obama's Republican foes in the Senate have refused to confirm his nominee Merrick Garland, a strategy denounced by critics for weakening the judicial branch but one that seems to have paid off for the conservatives.

Once Trump's pick is confirmed, there will be five conservatives and four liberals on the bench.

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