Jul 5, 2019 - Politics & Policy

How the Supreme Court will upend 2020

Illustration of the supreme court intertwined with elements from an American flag

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The Supreme Court is already poised to drop some big political bombshells right into the heat of the 2020 campaign. And there are even more waiting in the wings.

Why it matters: The court will likely hand down rulings on some of the most contentious issues in American politics just a few weeks before the Democratic convention. They'll be a reminder of just how often the justices effectively have the final say — and that 2020 is a race to pick the next justices.

The court’s next term will “probably help to crystalize people’s thinking in the political season about the importance and the role of the court,” said Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society and a key adviser on President Trump’s Supreme Court nominations.


  • The justices have taken their first big Second Amendment case in over a decade — a challenge to New York City’s restrictions on transporting guns.
  • They’ll also decide whether Trump has the power to end the Obama-era immigration program known as DACA, which shields about 700,000 young adults and children from deportation.
  • And they’ll decide whether federal civil-rights law prohibits employers from firing workers because they’re gay or transgender.

There’s more on the way.

  • The justices are likely to take up an abortion case out of Louisiana.
  • Yet another challenge to the Affordable Care Act is also working its way through the system. Depending how things play out in a federal appeals court, it could land on the high court’s docket before Election Day.

Between the lines: Trump's ability to steer the court to the right, and specifically the presence of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, looms large in all of these cases.

  • New York is now trying to undo its own gun rules, hoping to scuttle the Supreme Court case rather than risk a loss that could implicate other gun laws.
  • Louisiana's abortion restrictions are highly similar to ones the court struck down in 2016 — but with then-Justice Anthony Kennedy as the decisive vote. Kennedy was also a consistent advocate for LGBT rights.

All of these cases carry major legal and political implications. The DACA case, for example, is a question about executive power. And immigration is also central to Trump's 2020 campaign, just as gun control animates Democratic candidates.

  • These rulings, at least some of which will likely come at the end of next June, would be hard for either Trump or the Democratic nominee to avoid even if they wanted to, and they may not want to.
  • Together, it all adds up to a reminder of the court's large — and growing — role in national politics.

Traditionally, conservative voters are more focused on the courts than liberals. That was evident in 2016, when the court's vacant seat helped Trump rally a base of both evangelical activists and establishment Republicans.

  • "If another vacancy emerges, you'll see another very similar kind of prioritization," Leo said.

The bottom line: If Trump is reelected and able to replace a liberal justice — or even if a Republican Senate blocks a Democratic president from filling lower-court vacancies — the judiciary could become a roadblock that stymies Democrats for generations. It's already headed that way.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that DACA includes young adults and children.

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