Supreme Court Decisions to Shape Policy, Campaigns

By Hawkings, David | Roll Call, May 18, 2014 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Decisions to Shape Policy, Campaigns


Hawkings, David, Roll Call


As the justices bring this season's caseload to a close, they have a pretty clear idea how the rest of this Supreme Court year will play out. The rest of the country, however, will remain almost entirely in the dark until the remaining decisions are unveiled over the next six weeks.

The outcome in at least four of the most important disputes will help shape both the policymaking and campaign agendas of Congress through the midterm elections and beyond. But it's possible no single ruling will have as much impact on the national political climate as the pattern that emerges in how the cases get decided.

The members of the current court are getting a reputation for being just as partisan and polarized as the politicians populating the other two elected branches of government. New polling shows the public is none too pleased with the Supreme Court's perception, which is backed up by some pretty solid evidence, and people want term limits for the justices in an effort to depoliticize the court.

So far this spring, two landmark cases at the intersection of legislating and politics have been decided by the narrowest possible 5-4 split, with all the nominees of Republican presidents lining to defeat the justices chosen by Democrats. That was the case in the April's ruling against the longstanding cap on how much an individual may donate to federal candidates in a given election cycle, and in May's ruling in favor of sectarian prayers before meetings of town councils and county boards nationwide.

And it was the same split in a third such case last summer, which struck at the heart of the Voting Rights Act. The Republican-picked majority (in descending seniority) was Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. The Democratic-chosen minority was Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Given the hot-button issues at stake, and the tenor of the questioning at the oral arguments, there is reason to suspect that several of the biggest decisions before the end of June will divide along those same partisan lines.

Only the five members of the GOP-appointee bloc sounded altogether ready to permit family-owned corporations to cite their religious freedoms in declining to provide insurance coverage for contraception, as generally required under the new employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act. (Hobby Lobby, the main plaintiff in this term's most important challenge to Obamacare, objects by holding up a belief that some contraception methods amount to abortions.)

The same five justices also made plain they are skeptical of the Obama administration's view that it has broad latitude under the law to set emissions limits on greenhouse gases from power plants, even though the numbers are nowhere mentioned in the Clean Air Act. The four Democratic appointees, in contrast, appear aligned behind the view that the EPA should have broad leeway in combating climate change.

How the court comes down on the Hobby Lobby and EPA cases will influence how the political parties shape two of their most important messages -- on health care and environmental regulation -- before the midterm elections. …

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