Video: Ethical Edge: A changing court
updated 7/1/2005 1:16:49 PM ET 2005-07-01T17:16:49

With Sandra Day O'Connor stepping down on Friday after being a Supreme Court swing vote on such issues as affirmative action, gay rights, abortion and the death penalty, whomever serves as her replacement will make a huge impact.

Father Thomas Williams and University of Pennsylvania Ethics Professor Anita Allen sat down with MSNBC's Chris Jansing on Friday to discuss the news of O'Connor's departure and the impact on the ethical direction of the U.S.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the 'launch' button to the right.

Father Thomas Williams:  I think the court as such affects the ethical construction (of the country) in a huge way.  Obviously, the ethics of the country are determined by the ethics of the people.  But the way the laws frame, the laws are interpreted and would trickle down into the way people believe and perceive different issues. 

Chris Jansing:  How will people look at this in terms of hot button issues?

Anita Allen:  I think now we have to all expect there will be a lot more disputes, fights, arguments and discussions about all the issues you just named:  abortion, capital punishment, affirmative action and so forth, because now we have to decide whether or not we keep existing law or change the law.

Jansing:  It's also not just about what decisions are made and who is the affirmative or dissenting opinion but what cases they decide to hear.

Allen:  Exactly, now this new justice will get to decide what cases will even go forward.  A case that did not go forward last year may be going forward next year.

Jansing:  One of the questions that is certain to arise is whether abortion will be a litmus test.  Should any single issue be a litmus test in determining who replaces Sandra Day O'Connor on this court?

Williams:  I don't think so.  I think the litmus test ... is competence as a justice, proved experience and far more important integrity.  These are far more important things than were you stand on this issue or that issue.

Allen:  In a practical matter, I believe abortion will be a litmus test in the next appointment.  We'll have to come up with a judge and think to satisfy the Republican desire and have someone in that seat who is anti-abortion.

Jansing:  Well we are looking at what are essentially conservative vs. liberal issues.  When people are going to be discussing who are the potential nominees, they're going to be looking at these issues that are very clearly, red/ blue, liberal and conservative.  Is that an ethical question also affecting us?

Williams:  Well there are some similarities but I don't think those categories are sufficient.  I mean they do clump together certain issues and certain issues usually associate themselves with certain characteristics.

Take life issues, death penalties and abortions for example, and in general, you get people switching all over the place on these issues.

Allen:  Here we have a justice I believe than was appointed by President Reagan who is conservative yet she wrote the important opinion n the case Planned Parenthood vs. Casey which upheld the central holdings of Roe vs. Wade.

Jansing:  Is it important whether the replacement is a woman in terms of the ethical direction of the court?  Do you think being a woman, professor, influences some of these critical decisions being made?

Allen:  I can't help but think her being women has had some impact.  I do think that it was so important and so moving for the nation, when it turned out to be Justice O'Connor who wrote this beautifully balanced opinion trying to argue we should protect Roe vs. Wade, while allowing the states to step in and put some restrictions on abortion.

MSNBC Live with Amy Robach and Randy Meier can be seen weekdays from 9 a.m.-Noon.

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