Supremes inject court into the 2012 campaign on health and immigration

The Supreme Court ensured a second major political controversy will be at the forefront of the 2012 presidential election on Monday when it announced it would hear a challenge to Arizona’s immigration law.

The court will hear arguments about the Arizona law in April and will issue a final decision in June, just two months before the national political conventions. The high court is also expected to issue a decision on President Obama’s healthcare law around that time.

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Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the Arizona challenge, a break with her decision to hear the challenge of the president’s healthcare law. 

Kagan, who was nominated by Obama last year, did not offer a reason for her recusal, though it is presumably linked to her work as Obama’s solicitor general when the federal government filed the original lawsuit against the state. Kagan has maintained that she did not serve as legal counsel during preparaation of the healthcare legislation, although email records between her and a Harvard professor show her cheering passage of the law.

Since Obama’s reelection hinges on his ability to carry Latino voters and to minimize the loss of white, blue-collar voters, the court’s decision on the Arizona law carries enormous political implications for both parties. 

Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008 but only 43 percent of the white vote, according to the Pew Research Center. Hispanics are a particularly important voting bloc in several states that shifted from Republicans to Democrats in 2008, including New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. They are also a key demographic in the swing state of Florida and in Arizona, a target for Democrats.

Some Hispanics have expressed disappointment in Obama’s actions on immigration since his 2008 victory, but Obama’s opposition to the high-profile Arizona law, which requires people to carry proof of their citizenship and allows police to detain suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant, could boost him ahead of the election. 

“Look, if the Supreme Court overrules the 9th Circuit and essentially creates a free-for-all in the states, it’s not only going to be tremendously disruptive, dangerous and damaging to communities across the country, but … that will create an energy and a strong motivation to vote for the Latino electorate,” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy for the liberal-leaning Center for American Policy. 

At the same time, Obama’s opposition to the law could further weaken the president with the white blue-collar voters who have been a problem for the president ever since his primary fight with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.). 

In 2008 Obama won only 40 percent of white voters with a high school or some college education, barely improving on Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) performance in 2004, according to Pew. He also did poorly among white voters who earned $50,000 or less in annual income. 

“Illegal immigration is one of the top issues for American voters that are worried about the economy,” said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action committee advocating tougher immigration laws. “Unfortunately, the Obama administration has taken the side of Mexico against the side of the American people.”

He predicted the issue would mobilize support against the president in an election year dominated by economic concerns.

“We think it’s wonderful news and we think the Supreme Court will find that states can enforce federal laws,” he added.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the administration looked “forward to arguing our point of view in that case when the time comes.”

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) also applauded the decision and said she was “confident the high court will uphold Arizona’s constitutional authority and obligation to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens.”

The decision to take up the Arizona law ensures the upcoming session of the Supreme Court will be among the most watched in history. In considering the healthcare law’s mandate that people buy insurance, the court will rule on Obama’s signature legislative achievement. In the case of the immigration law, it will rule on a hot-button issue that the legislative and executive branches have been unable to resolve, regardless of which party was in charge of which chamber.

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Kagan’s recusal opens up the possibility for a rare 4-4 split on the court, but also eliminates a reliably liberal vote from the panel. Since the lower court blocked provisions of the law, a tie would uphold that ruling and function as a win for the Obama administration. But in the event of a tie, the court would not be able to settle the larger issue of whether the Arizona statute is constitutional.

“A surefire member of the liberal bloc won’t be able to vote on it, which significantly alters the proceedings,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. 

As an issue, immigration has a power to fire up both supporters and opponents of laws to make it easier for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship or certain government benefits. As such, it is unclear whether the court’s decision is more of a boon to Obama or his future GOP opponent. 

Immigration activists warned that the issue was likely to inspire high Latino turnout for Democrats in crucial swing states like Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

“There will be a groundswell to vote out of anger and fear … I don’t think it has the same type of motivating power with the white blue-collar worker who is overwhelmingly focused on the economy and legislation focused on their economic circumstances,” said Fitz. 

Yet opposition to the law also carries some risk for Obama. 

“Beyond the obvious safety issues, the fiscal burdens imposed upon Arizona by illegal immigration are daunting,” Brewer said. “Our state spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year incarcerating criminal aliens and providing education and healthcare to individuals who entered and reside in this country in violation of our laws.”