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Outside Editorial: Politics and the court

Posted: January 4, 2012 - 12:04am

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up three issues that would be important at any time in the nation’s history: health care reform, immigration enforcement and determinations of geographical boundaries of legislative districts.

But, because all three issues are politically volatile, the cases could be particularly important in 2012, an election year, although precisely how will depend on what the justices decide.

Oral arguments in a Texas case involving legislative districts are scheduled for Jan. 9. The court has allotted three days in March for arguments on the federal health care reform law. The challenge to Arizona’s immigration law of 2010 probably will come up in April.

The court’s rulings could have far-ranging effects on the lives of Americans and alter the division of power between the federal government and the states. All three issues could indicate whether the court—the one branch of government that should stand above politics—has become yet another forum for partisan squabbling.

Challenges to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 received heavy scrutiny as they worked their way to the Supreme Court from district and appellate courts. The overriding question is whether two parts of Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution — the commerce clause and the necessary-and-proper clause — give Congress the power to require Americans to purchase health insurance.

Opponents say this so-called individual mandate exceeds that authority. A related question is whether the rest of the law would remain valid if the mandate were ruled unconstitutional.

A third aspect of the case involves the law’s requirement that states expand eligibility for Medicaid to include virtually all uninsured low-income residents.

The federal government ordinarily covers the majority of Medicaid costs. In the new law, the feds would pay states 100 percent of the expansion costs, but only for three years, starting in 2014. The states challenging the law say the expansion amounts to coercion.

Finally, a little-known provision of the federal tax code known as the Anti-Injunction Act raises the possibility that all existing challenges to the health care reform law are invalid.

The provision prohibits lawsuits against any tax before it takes effect. The health care law levies a penalty, enforced by the Internal Revenue Service, for failing to buy insurance, but that part of the law doesn’t go into effect until 2015.

In Texas’ 2011 redistricting case, the Republican-dominated Texas legislature revised maps of legislative districts for its two legislative chambers and the U.S. House of Representatives to match the results of the 2010 Census. There are about 4 million more Texans now than in 2000, which entitles the state to four more seats in Congress. Of the increase, 2.8 million are Hispanic residents and about 523,000 are African-American.

Texas is among nine states (along with parts of seven other states) with a history of voting discrimination against racial minorities. By law, it must get proposed voting-related changes approved by the Department of Justice or by a three-judge federal court panel in Washington. Texas chose to submit its maps to the court panel.

The judges found problems with the legislature’s minority standards and decided a trial was needed to assess the maps. A federal court in San Antonio then drew up interim maps to use until the trial could be held.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other officials filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to freeze the interim maps (which gave greater voting power to Hispanics and blacks) and decide whether the Texas legislature or a federal court is the proper body to draw legislative districts.

The uncertainty has cast confusion over a state primary election scheduled for March 6.

Arizona’s restrictive immigration law, enacted in 2010, included a highly controversial requirement that state law enforcement officers detain people stopped for any reason if they cannot prove they are in the United States legally.

In April, a federal appeals court ruled that four provisions of the law improperly preempt federal law.

In both the immigration and redistricting cases, the court could choose to rule broadly — giving all states the guidance they need on these controversial issues—or impose a narrow judgment that applies only in specific instances.

There is no shortage of predictions of how the court will decide these cases. But until oral arguments provide solid clues to the inclinations of swing Justice Anthony Kennedy, everything is mere guesswork.

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