Table: Punch, Counterpunch

The roots of contemporary strife over the federal judiciary date back nearly five decades

ERA OF JUDICIAL ACTIVISM, 1953-1980

After taking the reins as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren expands the rights of minorities and of accused criminals in landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and U.S. v. Miranda. Under successor Warren E. Burger, the High Court continues to anger conserva-tives with controversial opinions such as Roe v. Wade.

REPUBLICAN ROLLBACK, 1981-1986

Convinced that the courts have gone too far, President Ronald Reagan starts a campaign to nominate conservative judges who will roll back Warren- and Burger-era precedents such as banning school prayer, encouraging affirmative action, and tolerating abortion. He nominates Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981 and Antonin Scalia in 1986.

"BORKING" BECOMES A VERB, 1987-1991

The term is coined when Democratic Senators torpedo the nomination of Reagan nominee Robert H. Bork on grounds of extreme conservatism. Things get uglier in 1991, when the Dems launch an unsuccessful attempt to block the nomination of Clarence Thomas, airing accusations of sexual harassment and use of pornography.

PAYBACK TIME, 1993-2000

Bill Clinton's capture of the White House gives conservatives an opportunity to avenge the Bork and Thomas episodes. In an unprecedented effort to block the nomination of liberal justices, Republican Senators use a wide variety of tactics to stall more than 50 of Clinton's appeals-court nominees. Vacancies on the federal judiciary approach crisis levels.

ESCALATION, 2001-2004

Accusing George W. Bush of nominating excessively conservative judges, the Democrats copy Republican tactics and invent some new ones. One strategem: The use of filibusters to kill the confirmation of some appeals court candidates deemed too ideological.

THE COMING VACANCY WARS, 2004-?

No U.S. Supreme Court Justice has retired in more than a decade. So the next President could get to nominate as many as four Justices -- enough to tilt explosive issues such as abortion, affirmative action, campaign-finance reform, and gay marriage.

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