WHEN Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court on June 27th, Democrats rushed to the barricades. “This is the fight of our lives,” announced Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Senator Kamala Harris proposed delaying confirmation hearings for Mr Kennedy’s successor until after the next election, which falls in November 2018, just as Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, did with Barack Obama’s nominee in 2016. In practice, Democrats cannot stop Mr Trump from placing his second justice on the country’s highest court. Mr McConnell is serenely untroubled by the precedent he set, and President Donald Trump plans to announce his nominee on July 9th. When the nominee is confirmed in the autumn, he or she should cement a reliable conservative majority that could, among other things, make abortion less accessible and federal agencies less powerful, though not quite in the way that many seem to expect.

The next justice will almost certainly be young (Mr Trump talked of wanting his nominee to serve for 45 years) and farther to the right than Mr Kennedy, a libertarian conservative whose moderate social views made him the court’s swing vote. Predicting a jurist’s voting patterns used to be harder. David Souter, appointed by a Republican (George H.W. Bush), became a reliably liberal jurist. Hugo Black, a former Klansman from Alabama, ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Today’s Republican appointees, though, come up through a conservative legal pipeline that was in its infancy a few decades ago. They have reliable paper trails and are thoroughly vetted. Republicans have learned the “no more Souters” lesson. To shore up his standing with white evangelicals, the president released lists of potential nominees during the campaign, and has met at least seven people on those lists, though Mr Trump, an inveterate showman, may choose someone else entirely.

The president has stoked Republican hopes by musing about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade, which found that a constitutional right to privacy protects a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. That seems unlikely. It would be political self-harm, galvanising the left while removing a longtime inspiration for religious conservatives. Justices also tend to dislike simply overturning past rulings (though the court’s five conservatives, including Mr Kennedy, displayed no such squeamishness in a recent case that overturned decades of precedent to weaken public-sector unions).

Nothing seems to fit

The court need not explicitly overturn Roe to functionally outlaw abortion, though. It could simply approve onerous state-level restrictions. In 2016 Mr Kennedy voted with the Court’s four liberals to strike down, as an undue burden on a constitutional right, a Texas law requiring that abortion providers have the right to send their patients to nearby hospitals and that abortion clinics have similar facilities to surgical centres. Several similar cases are wending their way through the federal-court system. Under a more conservative justice, abortion may not become explicitly illegal, just inaccessible in many states.

A similar pattern may hold for gay rights, a cause that Mr Kennedy helped not just with his rulings on gay marriage, but going back to 1986, when he struck down a Colorado law that would have exempted gay people from anti-discrimination protections. Here, too, the risk is less that his successor renders gay marriage illegal than that the court permits various religiously inspired opt-outs. State clerks who refuse to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples on religious grounds could find their actions protected, for example. What was once the law of the land could end up applying only in some places.

A Kennedy-less court would probably be less hospitable to all sorts of regulation. The Affordable Care Act looks secure for now, because the block that upheld it (Mr Roberts and the court’s four liberals) remains intact. But conservative jurists are sceptical of the doctrine known as Chevron deference, which tells courts to defer to government agencies in their interpretations of ambiguous statutes, as long as they are reasonable. Conservatives complain that, in effect, this lets agencies make laws as well as enforce them, usurping power that properly belongs to Congress.

Chevron defenders argue the doctrine is essential to a functional government. Getting rid of Chevron would fit well with the goal of dismantling the administrative state announced in the first months of the Trump administration. This involves an intriguing family subplot. In the case that gave rise to Chevron, the court ruled in favour of granting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discretion. The boss of the EPA at the time was Anne Gorsuch. Her son, Neil, was Mr Trump’s first nominee and could be charged with undoing his mother’s handiwork.

Regulation of greenhouse gasses may be less vulnerable. In 2007 Mr Kennedy was the fifth vote in Massachusetts v EPA, which said the agency had the authority to regulate emissions that contribute to climate change. Mr Roberts, who will now be the court’s likeliest swing voter, has indicated that he regards this as settled law. His sympathy for business may prove an unlikely boon to environmentalists. David Doniger, of the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), an advocacy group, says he views Mr Roberts as persuadable, “if we could show that the impact of regulation was tolerable and predictable and [that] undoing them would be a mess.”

On issues concerning race, however, Mr Roberts has shown no such flexibility. In a 2007 case barring school districts from considering students’ races when assigning them to schools, Mr Roberts wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”—a perfectly admirable sentiment in the abstract that takes little account of the structural unfairness which affirmative-action is supposed to address. Since 2003 five affirmative-action cases have come before the Supreme Court. It is inevitable that a sixth will bubble up before long. Whoever the next nominee is, considering race in university admissions—which Mr Kennedy deemed narrowly permissible in 2016—will probably be deemed unconstitutional.

Mr Roberts also ruled in 2013 that parts of the Voting Rights Act were no longer necessary. This past term he voted to let Texas use an electoral map that a lower court found discriminatory against Latino voters and to let Ohio purge its rolls of people who have not voted in several elections and returned a postcard confirming their address. The court punted on three partisan gerrymandering cases. Much of the court’s conservative block opposes restrictions on campaign contributions.

The departure of Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer, liberal justices respectively aged 85 and 79, could give Mr Trump an opportunity to move the Court to a 6-3 conservative majority. Fearing that, some on the left have begun floating proposals to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court. The constitution does not specify a size for the court, but it has had nine justices since 1869. The last serious proposal to increase its size came from Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, when the conservative court repeatedly blocked New Deal legislation.

No serious Democratic politician has taken up the call. But if Mr Trump gets a third nominee, some could. If that happens, the Supreme Court’s reputation as a neutral arbiter above the partisan fray, which is already shaky, would be kaput.