Politics in the hands of the Supreme Court

Cameron Smyth Commentary, Right Here Right Now

I don’t think I am telling you anything new when I say that June is a month we all look forward to: School comes to an end, summer officially kicks off, baseball season is in full swing, and football season is just around the corner.

But is there anything for the political junkies in June 2015? Elections are still several months off, California’s budget has a multi-billion-dollar surplus and Congress is … well, Congress.

But fear not: June is also the time when the U.S. Supreme Court is anticipated to issue its final rulings for the year, and we can expect some major decisions with far-reaching impacts to be announced before Independence Day.

Health care subsidies

In what may very well be the last debate on the Affordable Care Act, the court will decide in King v. Burwell whether the tax subsidies provided in the 30+ states that have decided not to run an insurance marketplace are legal.

This specific case was accepted by the Supreme Court after a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court ruled 2-1 that the Affordable Care Act does not allow for the subsidies.

While upholding the appellant court decision would not overturn the health care law completely, it would certainly be a body blow.

More than 6 million people’s coverage would be put in jeopardy, and some analysts indicate it would lead to higher prices for all in those impacted states.

Same-sex marriage

Also, in what is seen as the culmination of two decades of legislative and legal debates on the issue, Obergefell v. Hodges (and three related cases) will decide whether the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.

Currently, same-sex couples can marry in three dozen states, but federal appeals courts have been divided over whether states must allow same-sex couples to marry and recognize such marriages performed elsewhere (the full faith and credit clause).

Most pundits believe the court will side with the pro-gay-marriage argument, as in three previous decisions, the Supreme Court has expanded the rights of gay Americans and marriage is seen as a natural evolution of the earlier rulings.

Numerous “friend-of-the-court” briefs were filed on both sides — a strong indication that this is the end game.

Lethal injection

In Glossip v. Gross, three death row inmates are challenging the use of the sedative midazolam as the first step in executions. Even if properly administered, they say, the drug cannot reliably cause the level of unconsciousness necessary before the injection of other, said to be extremely painful agents that ultimately cause death.

This case is a follow-up challenge to a 2008 decision where the court ruled that a combination of chemicals then in widespread use did not violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Partisanship and redistricting

I wrote extensively about this issue in an earlier column, but to summarize, the Arizona state Legislature is challenging the validity of the state’s redistricting commissions’ authority and whether voters have the power to alleviate elected lawmakers of their ability to draw district lines.

Should the Supreme Court reject Arizona’s commission and side with the Legislature, the voter-approved California Commission, along with the district boundaries approved in 2010, will likely be tossed out.

The Democratic Legislature could then redraw congressional districts in time for the 2016 election cycle, putting Republicans like our own Steve Knight, who are in marginal districts, in extremely competitive seats.

Already the DCCC views Knight’s district as a potential pickup in 2016.

Legislative districts 2.0

Last week the high court announced it plans to consider whether state and local voting districts should be based on total population or eligible voters.

A decision to use only eligible voters would fundamentally shift the political landscape across the nation, but more so here in California.

Areas with large Latino populations would see their political clout diminish, and you could see a shift in power from urban districts to more suburban/rural districts like Santa Clarita.

On its own, a ruling to only count eligible voters will significantly impact California’s political climate, but in combination with the soon-to-be announced decision on restricting commissions, it could change politics as we know it here in California.