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Supreme Court rulings sure to widen America’s ideological divide

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio June 14, 2012.

KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters

The American political class is on tenterhooks awaiting two of the most consequential Supreme Court rulings in years, each of which is set to come down this week or next.

The court decisions are certain to shake up the presidential election race and widen the bitter ideological divide that has characterized President Barack Obama's first term.

The rulings on the constitutionality of Mr. Obama's controversial health-care law and Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants are technically about the division of powers between the federal government and the states. But they go to the heart of quintessential American concepts regarding individual liberty and the rule of law.

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More than two dozen Republican-led states launched a legal challenge to Mr. Obama's 2010 health-care law, arguing that the legislation's so-called "individual mandate" infringes on personal freedom. They won their case in lower court rulings.

By requiring that Americans without an employer-provided health plan purchase insurance on their own, Republicans argue that the mandate sets a dangerous precedent that would allow the federal government to regulate any personal activity.

The mandate is the linchpin of Mr. Obama's health-care law, his signature domestic achievement as President. Most of the law's other provisions, such as prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions, are only economically possible if all Americans (sick and healthy) belong to the same insurance pool.

A Supreme Court ruling to strike down the mandate, and possibly the entire law, would be a colossal setback for Mr. Obama and decades of attempts to ensure that all Americans have basic health insurance. There are now 50 million people without coverage.

But while Republicans might proclaim victory, a ruling to invalidate the law could actually mobilize the Democratic base for the upcoming presidential and congressional elections. Passing a new law would likely require a Democratic majority in Congress.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who passed a similar state mandate as governor of Massachusetts in 2006, has promised to repeal the federal health-care law – commonly known as Obamacare – if he is elected in November.

But the court ruling, regardless of which way it goes, will require him once again to explain his opposition to a federal mandate, while supporting his own state's law. He has argued that the state law does not impose a burden on the economy, while the federal law would hinder small businesses.

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Mr. Romney also had some political finessing to do over the weekend after Mr. Obama moved Friday to temporarily halt the deportation of young adults who had been brought to the United States illegally as children.

The GOP nominee had previously said he would veto proposed legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the country as children. But on the weekend he insisted that he "would work with Congress to put in place a long-term solution" for this group of illegal immigrants.

Mr. Romney's previous stand on illegal immigration had been a barrier to gaining traction among Hispanic voters, who will be critical to the election's outcome in a handful of key swing states.

Indeed, Mr. Obama's move on Friday was a not-so-subtle attempt to mobilize the country's 21.7 million eligible Latino voters to turn out and support him in November.

Hispanic voters could also be energized by the Supreme Court's ruling on the Arizona immigration law, which requires state and local police to verify the immigration status of people they arrest. Civil rights advocates say the law will result in racial profiling.

A lower court prevented the Arizona law from taking effect in 2010, arguing that the enforcement of immigration laws is a federal responsibility. Arizona's Republican Governor, Jan Brewer, has countered that the law complements federal legislation and is necessary due to a lack of enforcement of federal laws by Mr. Obama's administration.

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If the Supreme Court strikes down the Arizona law, Democrats would get a boost and relieved Hispanic voters might have another reason to support them in November.

But the invalidation of the law could also provoke a backlash among Republicans, mobilizing Tea Partiers to elect a Congress that cracks down on illegal immigration.

Once again, Mr. Romney will have some finessing to do. He once called the Arizona law a model for other states. But he has tempered his approach in recent weeks, seeking to appeal to Hispanics and to centrist voters in key states such as Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Virginia.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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