One of the more interesting aspects of the 2012 general election is the developing role of the United States Supreme Court. With three cases on track to be decided in June, the court could effectively frame the terms of the debate for the final months of the campaign. That, and its actual rulings, could have a meaningful affect on American life.
The high court has been an issue in presidential politics for decades. But that has typically been reflected as condemnations of activist judges or promises to appoint justices who agree with some position. Most often that would be concerning Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case legalizing abortion.
This year, though, the Supreme Court is at the center of public debate not because of whom the next president might name to that bench, but because of what its rulings this year might mean for Americans today.
The first, concerns redistricting in Texas. As such, it involves the Voting Rights Act, the growing role of minorities and no surprise here gerrymandering.
That this is political is obvious. What is unclear is what meaning a Supreme Court ruling here could have outside Texas that is, beyond affecting the partisan composition of Texas congressional delegation.
A second case the court has agreed to hear is a challenge to Arizonas immigration law, one could clearly affect other states. One issue is whether by trying to control illegal immigration the state was impinging on federal authority.
Washington is jealous of its authority, and the court may well see it that way. But there are also questions of discrimination and of how freely Americans can travel within their own country.
The Arizona law allows the police to require anyone they have reason to think may be an illegal immigrant to provide proof they are in the country legally. Beyond the obvious discriminatory element driving while brown what would that mean? Outside of international airports, few Americans carry proof of citizenship. Drivers licenses do not speak to that. Would we all have to carry passports? Is a national identification card in the offing?
And then there is the main event: health care. A central provision of the Affordable Care Act Obamacare requires all citizens to purchase health insurance or pay a fine. Striking it down would completely alter, perhaps gut, the entire act.
At issue there is the commerce clause, and that has potentially far reaching ramifications. The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes. But almost everything somehow touches on interstate commerce, and over the years Congress has used that to extend its authority over American society. Much of the New Deal, civil rights legislation, environment regulations and more, are all tied to the commerce clause.
Commerce clause cases date to the early 19th century. In 1942, the Supreme Court said it allowed regulation of activities even indirectly linked to interstate commerce. The court stepped back from that expansive view in 1995 and 2000, but then seemed to reverse course in cases decided in 2005 and early this year. Who knows how it might see it in relation to health care?
Whatever the Supreme Court decides in these cases, the fallout will be huge. The health care case will affect all Americans and could, if the court limits use of the commerce clause, produce sweeping results. However it rules, though, the court will greatly influence next years election.