The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals -- regarded as the most conservative in the country -- may be the first legal arena to be affected by the winds of political change.

Headquartered in Richmond, VA (and housed in the former treasury of the Confederacy), the 4th Circut affects everyone who lives, works or owns a business in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas. And as the Washington Post reports this morning, recent vacancies coupled with a new Congress could steer the country's most right-wing court in a new direction:

A growing list of vacancies on the federal appeals court in Richmond is heightening concern among Republicans that one of the nation's most conservative and influential courts could soon come under moderate or even liberal control, Republicans and legal scholars say.

A number of prominent Republican appointees have left or announced plans to leave the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has played a key role in terrorism cases and has long been known for forceful conservative rulings and judicial personalities.

The article cites dismay from conservatives, and glee from liberals, that President Bush didn't fill the 4th Circuit's vacancies before Republicans left office. As the Post notes: "The 15-member court has three vacancies, and a fourth judgeship will open in July. That would leave the bench with six Republican and five Democratic appointees by summer."

The 4th Circuit has been a bastion of federal court conservatism. Republicans famously blocked four of President Clinton's appointments, and the legal outlook of those who have made it to the bench have made it the favorite court for Republicans to make their case, as the Christian Science Monitor reports:

[The 4th Circuit's] conservatism is evident in rulings scaling back everything from employment-discrimination claims to criminal procedural protections such as the Miranda warning. Death-row inmates here have one of the lowest success rates in getting their appeals heard of any of the 12 federal circuits.

Such novel positions often invite Supreme Court review, says Dave Douglas, a law professor at William & Mary law school in Williamsburg, Va. They also make the court a favorite for conservative lawyers. Observers say the court's stances on law and order help explain why the Justice Department chose to hold prominent post-Sept. 11 terrorist suspects within the Fourth Circuit's territory.

In fact, the 4th Circuit's conservatism was so strong that the few times the judges voted against Bush administration policies -- such as refusing to authorize the transfer of "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla to face new charges and opposing gay marriage amendments to the constitution -- it was a major event.

It's doubtful Democrats will succeed in getting -- or even try for -- liberal judges in the 4th Circuit. More likely, the court will go the way of Congress: towards moderation.