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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The Supreme Court is wasting no time diving into the thick of 2020 politics. Starting Tuesday, the court will begin debate on whether employers can fire someone for being gay or transgender.

Why it matters: It's the first in a slew of polarizing issues the court will decide over the next 9 months. And Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a polarizing figure himself, will be at the center of it all.

The big picture: The court is slated to hear 3 related cases about LGBTQ rights — one of the specific areas where Kavanaugh's replacement of former Justice Anthony Kennedy may make the most difference.

  • Federal law prohibits workplace discrimination "because of sex."
  • The court will consider the cases of 2 men who say they were fired because they were gay, and a trans woman who was fired after she began transitioning.

What they're saying: The employees argue that a person's sexual orientation is inextricably tied to their sex — the employers here didn't have a problem with attraction to men; they had a problem with men being attracted to men.

  • In the case of the trans employee, her employer was happy with her when she was identifying and dressing as a man, then fired her as soon as she identified and dressed as a woman.

The other side: The businesses' core argument is that the existing law, first written in 1964, does not ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and that Congress could always spell out such a protection if it wanted to.

Between the lines: More than 200 companies — including Apple, AT&T, Facebook, JPMorgan Chase, Starbucks and Uber — have weighed in on the side of the employees. So have big labor unions. The Trump administration has sided with the businesses.

What we're watching: The logic of the employers' argument seems likely to appeal to the court's conservative majority.

  • Holding that federal law doesn't bar sexual-orientation-based discrimination would be a fundamentally conservative ruling both in its politics and in its deference to the legislative branch. That's a sweet spot for Chief Justice John Roberts.
  • The employer who fired the trans woman is relying heavily on his religious beliefs, which also tends to find a sympathetic ear at the high court.

The bottom line: This is just the beginning. The court is diving into these polarizing issues quickly and will keep doing so until next summer.

  • Just last week, the justices accepted a high-stakes abortion case out of Louisiana.
  • They've also accepted their first big Second Amendment case in over a decade.
  • They'll hear oral arguments in November over whether President Trump had the authority to end the Obama-era immigration program known as DACA.

Many of these high-profile rulings will come down next June, and it's hard to think of a set of issues — abortion, guns, immigration and the legacy of the Kavanaugh confirmation — that could more fully rile up both parties' bases ahead of the 2020 elections.

Go deeper

U.S. border cities again see low violent crime rates

Expand chart
Data: FBI, Kansas Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

Reported violent crime in the United States rose in 2020 for the first time in four years, but violent crime rates in 11 of the largest communities along the U.S.-Mexico border stayed below the national average, an Axios analysis found. 

Why it matters: Year after year, data showing low violent crime rates in majority-Mexican American and Mexican immigrant border communities dispels myths of the U.S.-Mexico border as a region filled with crime and chaos.

Biden to Dems: This is my make-or-break moment

President Biden walks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after addressing the House Democratic caucus on Thursday. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden told the House Democratic caucus Thursday "my presidency will be determined" by the votes he wants in the next week on his $1.75 trillion social safety net expansion and $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

Driving the news: Biden made the comment, according to a source in the room, as he tried to rally support for the $1.75 trillion package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acted immediately, calling for a vote on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill later in the day.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
3 hours ago - Energy & Environment

China declines to speed emissions cuts in new UN pledge

A view of the skyscrapers in the haze in Shanghai, China, in December 2020. Photo: Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Chinese leaders are sticking with a prior target to bring the country's carbon emissions to a peak before 2030, according to documents filed with the United Nations Thursday under the Paris climate agreement.

Why it matters: The new documents come just days ahead of the UN climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow. China is by far the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, and its emissions path is key to whether the temperature-limiting goals of the Paris agreement can remain within reach.