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Supreme Court inserts itself into 2012 election in a major way

at 02:03 PM ET, 12/12/2011

With its recent decisions to take up a trio of major cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled that it will become a major player in the 2012 election.

The court’s decision Monday to review Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration law was just the latest addition to what many see as its most important and politically charged docket in recent years.
The nine members of the Supreme Court pose for a new group photograph to reflect their newest member, Elena Kagan, in October 2010. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The court also said late Friday that it would review a contentious redistricting situation in Texas, and perhaps most importantly, a few weeks ago it said it would examine President Obama’s health-care bill.

All three rulings, on their surface at least, favor Republicans, as the GOP had been seeking to get the high court to tackle those issues.

But even as we don’t know how the cases will pan out, simply raising the issues to such prominence could have a major impact on the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.

At the same time, it’s not exactly clear which party will benefit.

Republicans were overjoyed with the news that SCOTUS would hear a case involving the health-care bill, as steadfast opposition to the law was a rallying point for its base in the 2010 election and played a big role in returning the GOP to the House majority. Rehashing the individual mandate portion of Obama’s bill, for example, could have a galvanizing effect for a GOP that isn’t quite as excited to turn out to vote.

By the same token, the Obama administration actually asked the court to review the law next year, inviting the ensuing debate on the eve of the 2012 election and suggesting it’s confident of the political consequences. And maybe the president and his team have something up their sleeve; a recent poll showed support for the individual mandate, which requires every person to have health insurance, cracking 50 percent.

“I certainly think the Court will raise the salience of some of these issues in the election,” said Rick Hasen, an expert on law and politics at the University of California-Irvine. “The president could try to run against the Court if they strike down health care, though Republicans typically have done better running against the Court.”

On immigration, the court’s decision is similarly up in the air, but the ruling’s politics are probably more dicey for Republicans.

The Justice Department has blocked a few aspects of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, arguing that they are too restrictive and that the state is attempting to supersede its authority on the issue. Arizona argues that the federal government has failed to address the problem in a meaningful way and forced the states to act.

The case is particularly important because other states have passed similar laws seeking to crack down on illegal immigration, and practically speaking, conservatives hope the court sides with the states and upholds their laws. They also think a SCOTUS ruling against the federal government could serve as an indictment of its immigration policy.

But it’s also easy to see how a SCOTUS intervention won’t turn out so well for the GOP. The administration urged the court not to take up the immigration case, but politically speaking, this is actually an issue that could work for Democrats.

Illegal immigration has been a flashpoint in the GOP presidential race so far, causing candidates to squirm. Whether it was Texas Gov. Rick Perry struggling with his support for the DREAM Act or former House speaker Newt Gingrich suggesting it’s not practical to deport millions of illegal immigrants, this is something the GOP isn’t always happy to talk about — particularly as Latinos are an increasingly important voter bloc.

While this is an issue that has energized the GOP base much like the health care bill, it’s also a tougher one to navigate and risks turning off more independent voters. The GOP would rather focus on the economy, and illegal immigration has often served as an unwelcome distraction in that regard.

On redistricting, the Supreme Court’s decision to block a court-drawn redistricting map in Texas will have more of a practical impact than a political one. (Even if The Fix gets excited about redistricting, we know not everyone feels the same way.)

The court sided with Texas Republicans in taking up the map, which likely would have seen Democrats capture three congressional seats.

Besides potentially swinging a few districts to Republicans and negating what had been a big boon to Demcorats’ prospects of retaking the U.S. House in 2012, SCOTUS blog surmises that the high court may also serve notice that the courts should be more deferential to maps that are drawn by state legislatures.

That would be a win for Republicans, who have much more control over the redistricting process in key states and could see their maps in big states — Florida, for example — endure some pretty high-stakes litigation.

The Texas redistricting case is a smaller piece of the puzzle, and it will be decided long before the Arizona immigration and health care cases — in which rulings are likely to be handed down this summer, as the general election is ramping up — but all three are part of an emerging picture of a pretty powerful and assertive court that will hand down rulings with political consequences for the 2012 election.

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