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Ask voters what the most important issue is in an election and the Supreme Court almost never makes the list. This year, that could changed. The Justices are expected to hand out a string of politically charged decisions in the midst of the presidential campaign.
And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the case argued this week at the Supreme Court, health care, is at the top of that list.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama has tried using the Supreme Court as a political tool before. In his 2010 State of the Union address, he attacked the Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited corporate money in elections.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests.
SHAPIRO: Members of the court looked uncomfortable sitting in the front row. As a rule, the justices avoid the spotlight. And they hate being a political football.
JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER: People do in fact have problems of trust in institutions, and I want to show how my institution, the court, has gradually earned the trust of Americans.
SHAPIRO: In a book interview in 2010, Justice Steven Breyer told Fox News judges are not politicians.
BREYER: They're not junior league politicians and not senior league politicians. And what I want to get across here is how difficult it is to maintain public confidence over a long period of time.
SHAPIRO: Yet a poll this month suggests the American people don't buy it. In a Bloomberg survey, 75 percent of respondents said they believe politics will influence the justices' votes on the health care law. Former Senator Tom Daschle, a Democrat, says that number could go even higher once we have a ruling.
TOM DASCHLE: This will become the most politicized period involving the Supreme Court in over 80 years. There's no question they will become the focal point of politics on both sides of the aisle.
SHAPIRO: In 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned against the Supreme Court for striking down progressive legislation, and he won reelection by a landslide. Democrats are now mapping out a similar course, says Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress.
NEERA TANDEN: You know, it's not the Affordable Care Act in a vacuum. It would be striking down the Affordable Care Act on top of Citizens United, which comes a few years after Bush v. Gore.
SHAPIRO: Republicans have already begun to pull the court into the political fray. They spliced together clips from Solicitor General Don Verrilli's health care argument to make this ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
SHAPIRO: The ad's text reads: Obamacare: It's a tough sell. And health care is not the only controversial decision before the justices this term. By June, they are also expected to rule on the Arizona immigration law. Ed Whelan of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center welcomes a focus on the justices.
ED WHELAN: I always wish that the Supreme Court were more of an issue than it ever turns out to be.
SHAPIRO: He says voters should appreciate that Supreme Court justices are one of the longest legacies of any president.
WHELAN: I think that conservatives have really won the political debate over the proper role of the Supreme Court, and the more people focus on the Supreme Court the better it is for conservatives.
SHAPIRO: Tanden at the Center for American Progress agrees that conservatives have won the fight until now. And she believes this year could mark the turning point.
TANDEN: If we don't have a system where we've ended discrimination based on preexisting conditions, if our health care system costs are rising, people will recognize that has occurred because of the Supreme Court, you know, in a way that they haven't seen before because the Supreme Court has been deferential to the elected branches.
SHAPIRO: Of course, Democrats still hope the court will uphold the health care law. But if it goes the other way, they're ready for war.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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