How the Supreme Court Could Affect the 2016 Presidential Election

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The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, DC, June 18, 2012. (Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, DC, June 18, 2012. (Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

As much as the Supreme Court justices dislike political labels, its rulings will undoubtedly thrust it into the center of the presidential race with decisions coming up on abortion, contraceptive coverage, affirmative action, organized labor, voting rights and possibly immigration.

The decisions are likely to reverberate on the campaign trail as candidates use them to remind voters of a presidential election truism: The winner will likely get to nominate several justices over the next few years. Three justices — the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg; conservative Antonin Scalia; and Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote on key social issues — will be 80 or older by Election Day.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has often cited the importance of the court in his speeches, as he appeals to conservatives who might be unhappy with recent rulings on Obamacare and same-sex marriage. “You know, we have a Supreme Court right now that is an activist, fundamentally illegitimate court,” he told an audience in Rock Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday.

Cruz believes that the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts by President George W. Bush was a mistake, especially after Roberts voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act. “A handful of judges rewrote Obamacare,” Cruz said, “in order to force that failed law on millions of Americans.”

This term also highlights the difference just one justice can make on the bench.

When it considers the cases on affirmative action and abortion, for instance, it will be discussing court precedent crafted in part by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She retired from the bench in 2006 and was ultimately replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, who could vote to chip away at those precedents.

“It’s a fascinating moment because we are entering 2016, and the court has the potential to place itself in the heart of the political debate that we are having in the country,” said Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. The court is poised to rule on cases this term that are the “building blocks” of the progressive movement, she said.

Here are the cases the court is considering that could play a big role in the presidential race:


In March, the court will hear the first major case on abortion rights since 2007.

At issue are key parts of Texas’ 2013 abortion law that requires that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and mandates that clinics upgrade their facilities to hospital-like standards.

Abortion rights supporters say the law is one of the strictest in the nation and that if the Supreme Court agrees with a lower court’s decision and allows two provisions of the law to go into effect, the number of available clinics in the state is expected to fall to about 10. Supporters of the law argue it’s meant to protect women’s health. Other states have similar legislation percolating through the lower courts.

Abortion is always an issue that can fire up base voters on both sides, and a ruling would likely come in late June, just as the general election battle heats up.

Contraceptive mandate

For the fourth time, the court will hear a challenge targeting the Affordable Care Act. The latest case concerns a challenge from religious nonprofit groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, to the so-called contraceptive mandate.

That’s the requirement that demands group health plans provide a full range of contraceptive coverage to women at no cost. It’s a follow-on to the Hobby Lobby case, where in 2014, the court sided with closely held for-profit companies that objected to providing certain contraceptives.

It’s another ruling that could come in late June.


This month, the court is expected to announce whether it will wade into the dispute concerning President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

Texas and 25 other states are challenging the programs that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to apply for programs that could make them eligible for work authorization and some associated benefits. Lower courts have so far sided with Texas and temporarily frozen the programs from going into effect.

The Obama administration hopes the court will take up the issue this term and reverse the lower court to green light the programs before the next election, but the timing, should the court agree, will be very tight.

Affirmative action

In December, the court seemed divided on a major affirmative action case challenging the race-conscious admissions plan at the University of Texas, with supporters of the school fearful that the the justices are poised to curtail the use of race as one factor in admissions.

All eyes will be on Kennedy, the Ronald Reagan nominee who is often the deciding vote in tight cases. He has supported a government interest in diversity but has yet to rule in favor of an affirmative action plan.

Scalia’s comments at oral arguments, however, have grabbed most of the attention. Scalia, referencing friend-of -the court briefs that argued that affirmative action in higher education could do more harm than good for some minority applicants, started a political storm when he said, “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school.”

Voting rights

The court heard another big case in December challenging the “one person, one vote” doctrine in a dispute that could change the way that states draw their legislative lines. The principle dates back to the Earl Warren court when the justices held that legislative districts must be drawn so they are equal in population.

The court, however, never defined whether the doctrine applies to the general population or the voting population. The plaintiffs in the case, supported by the conservative group Project on Fair Representation, argue that their vote is being diluted in relation to voters in other districts that have similar numbers of people but fewer eligible voters.

Civil rights groups are watching the case carefully, fearful that if the court rules with the plaintiffs, it could shift power from urban areas — and from districts that tend to vote Democratic and include a higher percentage of individuals not eligible to vote such as noncitizens, released felons and children — to rural areas that tend to vote Republican.

Labor unions

This month, justices will hear arguments in a case that could weaken the coffers of public sector unions and threaten thousands of contracts between unions and governments across the country.

The challenge is brought by a group of public school teachers in California who argue that the court should rule that compelling so-called “agency fees” from nonmembers violates the First Amendment.

Court precedent holds that while a public sector union can’t demand money from nonunion members for political or ideological spending, it can require those employees to pay for workplace bargaining such as wages, grievance processing and workplace conditions.

In the past, Alito has hinted it’s time to overturn precedent, but Justice Elena Kagan and others have strenuously defended it.

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