In divisive US election on Nov 8, Supreme Court composition is crucial prize

The New Spirit Revival Centre, a charismatic church in Cleveland, claims that as many as two million people tune in to its radio station.

At its regular morning service on Sunday - two days before the most divisive presidential election most Americans can remember - its mostly African American congregation sang and clapped to a choir belting out rousing devotional songs.

The pastor, Dr Darrell Scott, 58, gave an impassioned sermon from the pulpit, focusing on the trial of Saint Paul. It was a non-stop 30-odd minute tour de force, accompanied by deep chords on the organ when his delivery rose to a frenzy, his passionate congregants calling back to him and raising their arms ecstatically when he made particular points.

And then his wife, Dr Belinda Scott, no less impassioned, took the microphone and delivered a message that without naming anyone, was clear enough - vote for Republican candidate Donald Trump.

"Our country is changing. Soon we won't recognise it any more," she said, as she called for a "shake-up".

It was no surprise.

 

Pastor Scott had spoken in support of Mr Trump, the 70-year-old business tycoon and former reality TV star, at the Republican National Convention in July, and has been trying to mobilise other black pastors with his message of morality.

 His support for Mr Trump, who despite being unabashedly anti-immigrant and branded a racist and a misogynist by critics has nevertheless surged on the coat tails of largely disgruntled conservatives and the white rural middle class, triggered a furious Twitter battle in the African American community, which is largely seen as a Democrat Party vote bank.

But the pastor has remained adamant. In a meeting room in the church building, speaking to The Straits Times along with a small group of international journalists travelling with the East West Centre's Presidential Election Reporting Seminar, he glowered, fiddling with a plastic Donald Trump figure. "The battery is dead," he said with a rare brief grin.

This election is about morality, he insisted. American society is "abusing abortion". Women - most of them African American - are "getting pregnant and getting abortions like they go to the dentist and get a root canal".

If Mr Trump gets in the White House, he should review Roe versus Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that the constitutional right to privacy extended to a woman's right to make her own personal medical decisions , including having an abortion, the pastor said.

But President Barack Obama wanted liberal judges on the Supreme Court, he warned. Earlier, his wife had told the congregation: "Most of all I want Christian liberty.

"This election is very, very serious; it's not just about a President; it's about the Supreme Court seats."

Apart from the presidency, the race for Senate and other legislative seats - and, in more than half a dozen states, the legalisation of marijuana as well - the composition of the Supreme Court is seen by both camps as a core issue.

In early July, the authoritative Pew Research Centre released the results of a survey on what voters thought were the most important issues in the upcoming election - 65 per cent said appointments to the nation's highest court would be an important factor in their decision.

The Supreme Court currently has eight justices and one vacant seat, after the death in February of 79-year-old judge Antonin Scalia.

The confirmation of his replacement, Merrick Garland, chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, who has been described as a "moderate centrist", has been blocked by the Republicans, who are hoping that Mr Trump will win the presidency and name his own, more conservative, justice.

If Democrat Hillary Clinton wins, and successfully gets Mr Garland or her own nominee confirmed, he or she would be the fifth judge to be appointed by a Democrat President.

Mrs Clinton could also potentially appoint more judges; Supreme Court justice positions are for life but like Mr Scalia, they are mortal and have to be replaced if they die. There will be three justices 79 or older in 2017, when the next president is inaugurated. 

The Republican Party believes a justice appointed by Mrs Clinton could mean the Democrat Party will tilt the liberal-conservative balance 5-4, and she could further stack the bench with liberal appointees down the road, affecting key decisions for years to come that, like Roe versus Wade, have the potential to change the fundamentals of the country. 

In the second presidential debate on Oct 9, Mrs Clinton had said: "I would like the Supreme Court to understand that voting rights are still a big problem in many parts of our country, that we don't always do everything we can to make it possible for people of colour and older people and young people to be able to exercise their franchise."

She added: "I want a Supreme Court that will stick with Roe versus Wade and a woman's right to choose, and I want a Supreme Court that will stick with marriage equality."

In response, the Conservative Review said in an article that "Hillary's court would be a high-powered weapon for the Left".

Republicans would rather have Mr Trump become President and appoint a conservative justice, thus flipping the balance. One potential outcome of that would be a review of Roe versus Wade - or indeed other decisions, including subsequent ones on abortion rights. 

Pastor Scott's views go to the heart of the deep, and growing, liberal-conservative divide that is at the core of the hotly contested election. 

They are also a reminder that while African Americans are generally expected to support Mrs Clinton, some may not; the US's voting blocs are not monolithic.

And while Mr Trump's political influence may be limited, in the context of Ohio - which voted for President Barack Obama in 2012, but where opinion polls now suggest Mr Trump has a slender lead over Mrs Clinton - a few thousand votes can make a difference.

Ohio has 18 electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. RealClear Politics, a website which averages out several opinion polls, on Sunday evening had Mrs Clinton winning 216 and Mr Trump winning 164 - with 158 votes a "toss-up".

Mrs Clinton has been pulling out the stops to mobilise the African American vote. On Sunday morning, she spoke at an African-American church in north-west Philadelphia to warn the congregation that "everything" they cared about was on the ballot.

"This election is about doing everything we can to stop a movement to destroy President Obama's legacy," she told them before flying to Cleveland, Ohio.

She had appeared at a concert in Cleveland on Saturday with pop star Beyonce and hip hop star JayZ. On Sunday afternoon, she appeared with basketball star LeBron James, an Ohio native with a huge fan following.

Mrs Clinton made a measured speech, telling the enthusiastic, mostly white middle class professional downtown Cleveland audience: "We have arrived at a moment of reckoning in this election. Our core values are being tested."