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Scalia’s Death Complicates Hot-Button Political Issues On Deck for SCOTUS

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative members, complicates a term that was poised to play a big role in this year’s elections, thanks to cases directly involving congressional districts in Virginia and North Carolina and other high-profile issues that could become rallying points for voters in the presidential election.

Scalia, 79, who was found dead at a resort in Texas Saturday morning, was one of four justices who formed a reliable conservative block, although that broke down on some contentious issues, notably the health care law of 2010. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas are the other three.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is often the swing vote who could determine whether the court would rule with the conservatives or the four liberal justices. Scalia’s absence means five votes are less likely to be found for a conservative majority.

With the court’s docket for the current term finalized six weeks into the year, the scope of the issues the justices are taking on is clear. Since the term began in October, the justices have added cases over President Barack Obama’s immigration executive actions, the limits of the constitutional right to have an abortion, and the health care law’s contraception mandate. The three promise to be hotly discussed by presidential candidates.

Even decisions on cases the justices won’t hear this term could become campaign issues.

For example, a divided Supreme Court on Feb. 9 stopped implementation of Obama’s signature climate regulation to limit carbon emissions from power plants while officials from 26 states and companies challenge it in court.

The action surprised legal experts who suggested the justices might have tipped their hand on the merits of the challenge that the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority. Those states now have a chance to make their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which will hear oral arguments on June 2, meaning the decision could still be pending at the time of the elections.

If the federal courts uphold the regulation, the next president could determine whether the EPA keeps the rule or scraps it. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton alluded to the idea that the next president could get the chance to appoint justices if one retires or dies.

“The next president could transform SCOTUS for decades,” Clinton wrote in a tweet the day after the Supreme Court’s decision. “Whether we fight climate change or sit by is at stake.”

That sentiment was echoed by hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, a billionaire Democrat who has spent considerable cash on environmental causes and candidates. “Our next president will have the responsibility to select Supreme Court justices, and today’s decision reminds us how critical these selections will be to keeping our families healthy, safe, and economically secure,” Steyer said in a written statement.

Starting in March, the justices will hear arguments in cases that put the court’s current term on par with the blockbuster decisions of past terms. In the last term, the court legalized same-sex marriage and upheld the 2010 health care law. Both continue to resonate on the campaign trail as candidates campaign for the November elections.

Decisions will come before the end of the term in June — as Republicans and Democrats approach the late summer nominating conventions — along with highly anticipated rulings that could change the future of affirmative action, public sector unions, and how states draw legislative boundaries.


Highlights of Court’s Docket

On March 2, the court is scheduled to hear arguments over whether a Texas law that requires stricter standards on abortion clinics violates constitutional protections by imposing an undue burden on the right of women to have an abortion. The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Docket No. 15-274, could affect other states that enact similar provisions.

On March 23, the justices will revisit the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) and hear arguments on another challenge to the contraception mandate, this time involving a group of seven cases from the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious nonprofit groups.

The groups object to taking action in a procedure required by the Obama administration — called an accommodation — to be exempted from the birth control mandate if they have objections to some contraceptive methods. Churches and other religious organizations are exempted without such a procedure. The case is Zubik et al. v. Burwell, Docket No. 14-1418

The court hasn’t yet scheduled arguments in April on whether the Obama administration overstepped its authority November 2014 policy changes that would affect millions of undocumented immigrants. The justices are scheduled to have six days of arguments in April but have not yet announced what cases will be argued on which day. The court’s handling of the case so far means that the outcome will be known before the president leaves office on Jan. 20, 2017.

The actions would defer deportation for undocumented immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents, under a program known as DAPA. The actions would also expand a similar program, called DACA, for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. The case is United States v. Texas, et al., Docket No. 15-674.


Congressional Districts

The Supreme Court will also weigh in on congressional redistricting cases in Virginia and North Carolina ahead of November elections that could affect districts.

On March 21, the court will hear arguments on the lines drawn for the majority-black 3rd District held by Virginia Democratic Rep. Robert C. Scott. A lower court in 2014 found those lines to be an unconstitutional gerrymander, and a federal three-judge panel decided on Jan. 7 to select a new congressional map and put it into effect for the 2016 elections.

The Supreme Court has allowed state election officials to move forward with the new map. But a decision in Wittman v. Personhuballah, Docket No. 14-1504, likely in June, has the potential to throw a late curveball into the state’s congressional maps for the 2016 elections. It will also settle congressional boundaries in the state for future elections.

This month, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and state election officials asked the justices to allow them to use the current congressional districts for the coming election while they appeal a ruling that found two districts were unconstitutional gerrymanders.

The justices are still considering the request.

North Carolina’s state officials want the justices to halt the Feb. 5 ruling of a three-judge panel of federal judges who found race predominated in the drawing of the state’s 1st and 12th Districts held respectively by Democrats G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams, both African-Americans. The panel directed the state to draw new congressional districts within a two-week period, or by Feb. 19.

The order could cause “massive electoral chaos” because the election process started months ago, the state officials say in the application to the Supreme Court.

“Thousands of absentee ballots have been distributed to voters who are filling them out and returning them. Hundreds of those ballots have already been voted and returned. The primary election day for hundreds of offices and thousands of candidates is less than 40 days away and, if the judgment is not stayed, it may have to be disrupted or delayed,” the application says.

“Early voting for the primary starts in less than 30 days,” it says. “Candidates for Congress have relied on the existing districts for two election cycles (2012 and 2014) and filed for the current seats over two months ago.”

March 2, arguments over a Texas law that requires stricter standards on abortion clinics.

March 23, arguments on another challenge to the contraception mandate in Obamacare.

TBD in April, Obama’s excutive actions on immigration.

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