U.S. Supreme Court set to issue potentially landmark decisions in midst of election season

The Takeaway

In the run-up to this year’s presidential election, campaign speeches, political analysis and polls always dominate the headlines.

But this year, the Supreme Court will be making big news too. With major rulings expected on President Obama’s health care law and SB1070, Arizona’s contentious immigration law, the Supreme Court’s positions are likely to sharply influence voter’s perceptions on the role of government.

Amy Howe, editor of SCOTUSblog said the Supreme Court’s upcoming decisions could be game-changers this election cycle. But she cautions against thinking the court has affirmatively decided to weigh in on politics.

“I think that they definitely see themselves as doing their job. They certainly don’t have to take all of the cases that come to them, but they see themselves as weighing in on issues of national importance,” Howe said.

With the healthcare law, for example, there’s no question that the law has national importance. Plus, different appeals courts around the country have ruled differently on the law — a key factor the Supreme Court looks for when deciding whether to take a case.

As for SB1070, it’s certainly a matter of national interest, and is somewhat in tension with a recent, previous Supreme Court decision on another Arizona immigration law.

“They see themselves as just doing their jobs, not weighing in on politics,” Howe said.

Of course, critics will argue that the court chooses when it hears cases, and when it issues rulings. There’s nothing that forces them to take up this case now, in the middle of election season.

Howe said the court certainly pays attention to what’s going around them. They see the crowds outside the courthouse when they’re considering potentially landmark cases. But their structure, life-time appointments, is designed to insulate themselves to some degree from politics.

“Once someone brings the cases to them, they have to decide whether they’re going to weigh in on it,” Howe said. “In healthcare, for example, the federal government could have tried to stretch it out and take a little bit longer before the case made its way to the Supreme Court. But I think, at the time, the Obama administration was confident it could prevail at the Supreme Court and wanted to get that issue at the Supreme Court before the election.”

It remains to be seen whether that was a good decision by Obama’s administration.

Howe said this is a bit of a perfect storm to have so many contentious Supreme Court cases that are squarely in the public eye, right before a major election.

“The court is weighing in on the incumbent president’s signature legislative achievement,” she pointed out. “It really is, I think, the perfect storm.”

No matter how the court decides, Howe said, it will bring the importance of the court front-and-center in the middle of the election season.

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