4 Court Cases That Could Impact the 2016 Elections

by Nathan L. Gonzales December 6, 2015 · 9:20 AM EST

Breaking news can be hard to predict, except when it’s tied to a controversial court case.

Candidates and consultants spend their time, energy and dollars staying on message — trying to focus voters on winning issues. But breaking news, even something such as a court decision that can be anticipated, often derails those plans by interjecting a subject that wasn’t in the campaign prospectus into the national conversation.

It’s far too early to declare which issues will be decisive in the 2016 elections, but a handful of court cases are likely to become news throughout the next year. That would force candidates for president, the Senate, and the House to respond, creating opportunities for them to shine — or to say something controversial, even stupid.

Of course these news events could be trumped by bigger breaking news, such as another terrorist attack.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole will have policy and political implications, considering many Democrats believe conservatives who oppose legal abortion are using health standards at abortion clinics as a Trojan horse to restrict access to abortion services.

The Supreme Court will decide whether a lower court’s decision places an “undue burden” on women in Texas seeking an abortion, because the law’s stricter standards for clinics would reduce their number and increase the distance many women would have to travel to obtain an abortion. SCOTUSblog has much more detailed analysis of the case.

But no matter what the justices decide, the court’s decision will make abortion something to talk about, at least briefly. Democrats are emboldened by their party’s positioning on the issue, last year’s Colorado Senate race notwithstanding. But both sides will likely try to rally their bases in the wake of the decision.

The Supreme Court is also set to hear Personhuballah v. Alcorn, involving redistricting in Virginia. Redistricting isn’t as polarizing as abortion, but it’s inherently political.

The court will review whether Virginia lawmakers improperly “packed” minority voters into Democratic Rep. Robert C. Scott’s district at the expense of their influence elsewhere in the state, as explained by The Washington Post.

In the near term, the ruling could turn GOP Rep. J. Randy Forbes’ district into a Democratic seat, although the timing is complicated with a March 31 filing deadline, as pointed out in Simone Pathe’s Roll Call piece. But a decision could have an impact beyond Virginia if Democrats use it as a precedent to challenge maps in other states on the same grounds.

“Both cases are likely to be argued in late February or March,” according to SCOTUSblog editor/reporter Amy Howe, “Obviously there’s no way to know for sure, but both issues are sufficiently contentious (especially abortion) that I can easily see waiting for decisions until June.”

Before next summer, a series of court cases in Baltimore could interject issues of race, inequality, and police brutality into the national conversation.

On Monday, jury selection began in State v. William Porter, one of the police officers facing criminal charges surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured while in police custody, which sparked rioting in Charm City. Porter, who has pleaded not guilty, is charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.

The trial could last a few weeks, according to The Baltimore Sun, but it’s just the first of six, separate, consecutive trials. The others are scheduled to begin between the beginning of January and the beginning of March.

Depending on the verdicts, there is the potential for more protests and rioting, and candidates could be asked to comment on the pictures and events that capture cable news channels.

Republicans hope a local case in Union County, Illinois, will boost the party’s prospects of holding the majority in the Senate.

Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth is listed as a defendant in a case, Butler et al. v. Duckworth et al., that stems from her time as head of the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

The complaint alleges workplace retaliation by two employees of a southern Illinois veterans home, as explained by The Chicago Tribune. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge in 2008 as a “garden variety workplace case,” refiled in state court and dismissed again, but then narrowed and brought back a third time.

Duckworth denies treating the employees unfairly, but the trial is set to begin April 4, just a couple weeks after the March 15 primary.

Republicans dream of Duckworth taking the stand and hope the trial is a game-changer for GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk, who is seeking a second term and is the most vulnerable senator in the country.

We rate the Illinois Senate race as Toss-up/Tilt Democratic, but that might understate Kirk’s challenge as a Republican running for re-election in a Democratic state in a presidential year.

Democrats are very confident in their standing in the race and are counting Illinois as the first step on their path back to the majority. If Kirk wins because of Duckworth’s demise, Democrats would need to defeat another, stronger Republican incumbent elsewhere to have any chance of winning back the Senate. But at this point, the case looks like a long-shot to change the dynamic enough to boost Kirk’s prospects.

There are at least a couple of other cases that could be decided next year, though most of their impact could come after 2016. For example, the court may decide to take up cases on immigration, campaign finance, and voter identification.

The Supreme Court already has Evenwel v. Abbott on the docket for next year. According to SCOTUSblog, the case will answer whether the “one-person, one-vote” principle require states to use voter population, as opposed to total population, when drawing state legislative districts.

“If the court in Evenwel simply reaffirms that states can use total population, the case will be no big deal,” said Rick Hasen of Election Law Blog. “But if the Court upsets things and requires the use of total voters in drawing districts, it would shift power away from cities and Democrats and toward rural areas and Republicans, at least in states with large Latino populations.”

“That would have great long-term impact on representation,” Hasen explained, “but short term it could make the court itself an issue in the campaign.”