Next year is an election year, but while candidates duke it out on the campaign trail, the real policy battle may be in the Supreme Court.
The country's highest judicial body will be haggling over President Obama's healthcare overhaul and Arizona's controversial illegal immigration law.
But that's not all. In an unusual move, it will be deeply involved in the mid-term elections in Texas, helping determine the lines for the state's congressional districts during the heat of the campaign season. As if that weren't enough on its plate, the court may also take up a controversial affirmative action case from the University of Texas. While 2011 was a year where Congress took center stage, 2012 could be the year when much of the national focus is on the Supreme Court.
"This is huge," says Stephen Wermiel, a law professor at American University. "If it were up to the justices, they would prefer to be more out of the limelight. But it's a perfect storm, this convergence of cases and timing that can't really be avoided."
The biggest item on the list is the Affordable Care Act, the sweeping overhaul of America's healthcare system passed by President Obama. The court will consider legal cases from 26 states on the constitutionality of the law—particularly its mandate that all working Americans buy healthcare insurance or pay a fine. The court's deadline to release an opinion will be June 30th, which means that Obama will be in the throws of an election campaign just as the Supreme Court rules on his most significant legislative accomplishment. But aside from the president's re-election campaign, the decision could set a new precedent limiting how much the federal government can be involved in commerce and daily life. "It may reshape the legal landscape," says Herman Schwarz, a law professor at American University. "Or it may be, like Bush v. Gore, a one-way ticket for one case." It's also possible that the court could neglect to rule on it, leaving everyone ready to fight the battle another day.
The Supreme Court will also be deciding whether to knock down certain portions of an Arizona law which requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain and suspect of being in the country illegally. The case is technically a states rights case—whether Arizona's laws can trump federal immigration law. But it touches on some of the most controversial and emotional issues in the nation, and is sure to color the national discussion heading into the 2012 elections.
Congressional redistricting isn't often one of the top issues of national discussion, but it can determine the fate of elections and majority rule. The Supreme Court stepped in to block Texas from using a temporary alternative district map, drawn up by a district court, while lawsuits charging that the map drawn up by the state legislature violates the Voting Rights Act are sorted through. "The Texas redistricting case may really influence what happens in numerous states that are facing redistricting in 2012," Wermiel says.
The Supreme Court has yet to indicate whether it will take up the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, a lawsuit filed by two Texas residents who claim they were denied admission into the university due to its race-based preferences. The court hasn't ruled on affirmative action in higher education since it upheld certain parts of the University of Michigan's program in 2003—and there are four new Supreme Court justices since then. "That would be another blockbuster case," says Irv Gornstein, a law professor at Georgetown University and executive director of the university's Supreme Court Institute, who said today's more conservative court might make affirmative action virtually impossible for universities. "It's at least possible that it would make it very, very difficult to come up with a plan that would satisfy the court."