Obama’s frustration with courts bursts into public view

President Obama’s frustration that the federal courts could unwind much of his legacy burst into public display on Monday. 

In some of his toughest and bluntest comments to date, Obama said the Supreme Court should not even have accepted a case challenging his signature healthcare law. 

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“This should be an easy case; frankly it shouldn't have even been taken up,” Obama said during a news conference in Germany at the Group of Seven (G-7) summit of leading industrial democracies.

The King vs. Burwell decision, expected later this month, could deliver a lethal blow to ObamaCare by ruling that federal subsidies, granted to nearly 6.4 million people to purchase insurance, are illegal. 

It’s just one of several legal challenges to his agenda that have clearly got under the president’s skin. Obama also expressed frustration with lower courts for blocking executive actions intended to allow millions of immigrants to apply for deportation relief.

And the high court is expected to rule this month on a challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s first limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants, one of Obama’s most aggressive moves to address climate change. 

“It’s hugely frustrating for the president,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of public affairs at Princeton University.

Zelizer noted that justices aren’t susceptible to the same kind of pressure as lawmakers in Congress, who the administration is actively courting on trade.

“In those cases, the president can at least try to influence the policymakers by influencing the electorate,” he said. “That doesn’t work when it comes to the court.” 

Criticism of Obama’s actions from the courts carries a perception of impartiality, which might irk the president, who taught constitutional law before being elected to the Senate in 2004. 

In addition, the cases could help decide the fate of three of the president’s signature domestic accomplishments with just 18 months left in his presidency, giving the White House hardly any time to enact potential fixes.  

“They are important cases on critical issues, and to some extent, his legacy is at stake,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. 

Obama has long had a tempestuous relationship with the courts, though he has had his share of victories, too. 

The president memorably stared down Justice Samuel Alito during his 2010 State of the Union address, when Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizens United campaign finance decision.

The George W. Bush appointee shook his head and mouthed the words “not true” after Obama said the ruling would “open the floodgates for special interests” to spend without limit in elections. 

Before the Supreme Court ruled on the legality of the ObamaCare’s individual mandate in 2012, the president angered his critics, when he sternly warned it “would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step” for “unelected” justices to overturn the law.

But the court subsequently affirmed Obama’s biggest legislative achievement when, in a 5-4 ruling, it upheld the law.

The president has a mixed record before the court when it comes to his use of executive power, which he has increasingly used to accomplish his goals after Republicans took control of Congress. 

In its 2012 decision knocking down parts of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the president’s ability to use discretion to prioritize which immigrants to deport. The administration has used the ruling to argue its newest executive actions on immigrations are legal. 

But last year, the high court unanimously ruled that three of Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were unconstitutional, negating his efforts to bypass the Senate to push through contentious nominees. 

While Obama has defended the legality of his actions, Republicans say his saber rattling against the courts shows he is willing to flout the law when he is blocked from advancing his agenda. 

“Instead of bullying the Supreme Court, the president should spend his time preparing for the reality that the court may soon rule against his decision to illegally issue tax penalties and subsidies on Americans in two-thirds of the country," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who is leading the Senate's working group for King v. Burwell contingency plans.

Unfavorable rulings could serve as a blow to Democrats ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, energizing voters who disagree with Obama’s policies, Zelizer said. 

Perhaps frustrated by the ideological makeup of the high court, Obama and his Democratic allies are seeking to turn the GOP-backed lawsuits into an electoral advantage. 

“If history is any guide, as we have seen over the last six and a half years, it's clear how important the Supreme Court is and who is on that court,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “That’s why it’s important that there is a Democrat in the White House."

If the Supreme Court wipes out insurance subsidies, nearly 2 million people could lose tax credits in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina. 

Obama suggested Republicans’ “shortsighted approach” on immigration could hurt them at the polls, especially among Hispanic and Asian-American voters who twice helped elect him to the White House. 

“I suspect it will be a major topic of the next presidential campaign,” Obama said.

— Sarah Ferris contributed.