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Ted Cruz takes on Supreme Court in bid for Republican voters' attention

Ted Cruz takes on Supreme Court in bid for Republican voters' attention
Republican Sen. Ted CruzofTexas is targeting the Supreme Court for a series of recent rulings that he says shows the need for the justices to be elected, not appointed. (Molly Riley / AP)

Some presidential candidates who once worked for an institution reviled by conservative voters might try to make you forget that period in their life. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) can't stop talking about it.

Cruz once clerked and litigated at the Supreme Court, whose dismal approval rating among Republicans now rivals that of Congress, but he's nonetheless embracing his experience. With the first Republican primary debate rapidly approaching, he's trying to lead the charge against the nation's highest judicial body.

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"Sen. Cruz, because of his constitutional background, is certainly taking the lead," said professor John Eastman, former dean at the Chapman University School of Law and a leading conservative legal scholar. "He's been a Supreme Court advocate as well as a Supreme Court clerk. He understands the workings from the inside and the outside."

Republican primary candidates have long grabbed headlines by attacking Supreme Court justices for perceived judicial activism but this year, the court appears likely to be an especially tempting target. After a term in which the justices legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, a Gallup poll found Republican approval of the court had plunged to a record-low 18%.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Cruz clerked for conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist and went on to litigate cases before the court. In the Senate, he chairs a subcommittee that can hold hearings about the institution. Now, Cruz hopes to leverage that background into an outsized voice in the debate about his former employer.

"There appears to be growing public support for imposing real limits on the Supreme Court that is disregarding the views of the American people," Cruz said Wednesday at a subcommittee hearing titled With Prejudice: Supreme Court Activism and Possible Solutions. "I support every effort to bring power back to we, the people."

Cruz's campaign promised that his history with the court will play a significant role in his campaign.

Cruz, "having clerked for the chief justice and who himself has argued before the court nine times, has unique credibility when he says he would appoint only conservative justices," said Cruz campaign national spokesperson Rick Tyler in a statement.

Cruz will be far from alone in his criticism of the court. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.),  all of them GOP presidential candidates, have been vocal critics.

"It's kind of an easy target, especially in a primary, because you can rally your troops and there's no real pushback from the other side," said Michael Krull, who in the last election managed the campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was highly critical of the court. "There's not going to be a quote from a justice in the paper the next day."

Last month, after the justices legalized same-sex marriage, conservative candidates uniformly decried the ruling. Some called for constitutional amendments to overturn the ruling, others even said states should ignore the ruling.

Cruz did them all one better. In a 1,971-word treatise published in the conservative National Review, he laid out hundreds of years of history of thinking about the court's role and a proposal to subject judges to "retention elections." Invoking his time working for Rehnquist, Cruz quoted from the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and Thomas Jefferson while drawing on opinions written by multiple sitting justices.

The proposal for retention elections is unlikely to come to fruition and has come under criticism from both the right and the left, but a recent Fox News poll found 62% of Americans believe voters should be able to remove justices from the court.

On Wednesday, Cruz said he also supports term limits for justices, a proposal other Republican candidates have endorsed as well.

Cruz said he called for the reforms "as someone who has spent much of his life in and around the courts."

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