By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Among the few certainties in the current U.S. political environment are that immigration will be a flashpoint, abortion will remain divisive and Texas will sue the administration of President Barack Obama.
Since Obama, a Democrat, took office in January 2009, the most populous Republican-controlled state has filed suit against his administration 39 times. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take on one of the more notable cases and decide the legality of Obama's unilateral 2014 action to shield from deportation more than 4 million immigrants in the country illegally.
For Texas politicians, suing Obama is a badge of honor. Its attorney general's office has an annual budget of more than $600 million, more than five times higher than other major Republican strongholds such as Arizona.
Current Governor Greg Abbott sued the Obama administration 31 times when he was attorney general. Current Attorney General Ken Paxton, who succeeded Abbott last year, has sued eight times.
"I am enjoying being governor of Texas but there is one thing that I miss. It is that I no longer get to wake up and go to the office and sue the federal government," Abbott told a conservative forum this month in Austin.
No other Republican state comes close to the number of such filings and often they join Texas-led suits, as happened with the immigration filing that now has attracted 25 other states.
For Texas, whose $1.6 trillion a year economy is bigger than many countries including U.S. ally South Korea, spending on suits against the federal government is comparatively miniscule, at around $5.1 million as of December 2014, the Texas Tribune reported, based on disclosures it received from the office.
The office is a powerful machine with more than a million legal hours billed to litigation and counseling, according to its budget report.
The attorney general's Office of the Solicitor General boasts nearly 20 lawyers who specialize in appellate work in venues like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of Texas and the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
There is also a litigation division of about 30 lawyers with which the solicitor general can team up and present cases such as the one on Obama's executive action on immigration.
Texas loses more often than it wins and it has a great deal of litigation still pending before judges that may outlast Obama's presidency, which ends in January 2017.
A RAFT OF CASES
Under Paxton, Texas has sued the federal government on issues including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, taxes under Obama's signature healthcare law and blocking the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state.
Texas is a lead party in the two biggest cases before the U.S. Supreme Court during its current term, which ends in June. In addition to the immigration case, Texas is defending a state law being challenged by abortion providers that contend the Republican-backed statute is aimed at shutting clinics that perform the procedure.
The high court is due to hear arguments in the abortion case on March 2 and is expected to hear the immigration arguments the following month.
"Texas, being an economically and demographically important state, is a natural to take a leadership role if there is a challenge to federal power that a lot of states want to make," said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The lawsuits often follow a similar philosophical idea of challenging what Texas and other Republican-governed states see as an overreach of federal power at the expense of states' rights, he added.
"We don’t just represent Texas. You can call it 'Red State America' or 'Tea Party America,' but Texas is a voice for a lot of those people nationally," said Chip Roy, a top official in the attorney general's office who once served as chief of staff for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in November's election.
Cruz, a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk, helped bolster his political career when he served as Texas solicitor general from 2003 to 2008. He ramped up the office under Republican former Governor Rick Perry and helped forge challenges to what the state saw as federal overreach.
"We are proud to have Texas leading the charge in defending the rule of law," Cruz said on Tuesday after the Supreme Court announced it would hear the immigration case.
Roy said in an interview the state's leaders and a majority of its citizens want to protect the ideal of governing themselves.
"It is part of who we are," Roy said, "and that actually influences significantly our willingness, and our drive, to push back on Washington when we believe they are overstepping their constitutional authority."
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Will Dunham)