Supreme Court Decision Limits State Legislatures’ Power in Federal Elections

The Supreme Court ruled against Republicans in North Carolina who were battling for a congressional district map that would greatly advantage their candidates on Tuesday, but it chose not to put additional restrictions on state courts evaluating some election-related problems.

The North Carolina Supreme Court was within its rights in reaching the conclusion that the map constituted a party gerrymander under the state Constitution, the judges said in a 6-3 decision.

The “independent state legislature” doctrine, which Republicans claim restricts the ability of state courts to invalidate specific election laws passed by state legislatures, was rejected by the court as a result of its narrow interpretation.

Voting rights organizations and Democrats who were concerned about the repercussions of a decision that might limit state court power warmly applauded the decision.

Former President Barack Obama tweeted, “Today the Supreme Court rejected the fringe independent state legislature theory that threatened to upend our democracy and dismantle our system of checks and balances.”

The foundation of the independent state legislature defense is text from the Constitution’s Elections Clause, which states that election laws “shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”

The phrasing, according to proponents of the theory, which the Supreme Court has never accepted, supports the idea that legislatures have the final say when it comes to federal election laws under state law, maybe regardless of any potential limitations imposed by state constitutions.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that state courts “retain the authority to apply state constitutional restraints when legislatures act on the power conferred upon them by the Elections Clause.”

However, he continued, state courts do not have “free rein” when there are inconsistencies with federal law. The court found that federal courts have the authority to intervene in certain cases.

State courts may not, according to Roberts, “exceed the bounds of ordinary judicial review in this area in order to unconstitutionally intrude upon the role specifically reserved to state legislatures.”

Supreme Court Decision Limits State Legislatures' Power in Federal Elections

Following the November midterm elections, the state Supreme Court in North Carolina, which was then under Democratic control, reversed the ruling that it had made last year. This action raised the question of whether the justices even needed to decide the case.

Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Samuel Alito, both conservatives, joined Justice Clarence Thomas in dissension, arguing that this rendered the case moot.

Thomas expressed concern that the judgment may cause further complications in lower courts and could result in additional cases similar to the one that the Supreme Court itself decided in Bush v. Gore in 2000, which ultimately resulted in the election of Republican George W. Bush as president.

Thomas stated that the decision of the court “opens a new field for Bush-style controversies over state election law—and a far more uncertain one.”

In a separate opinion, conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh made it plain that the court will probably revisit the extent of state court authority at some point in the future.

The court “recognized and articulated a general principle for federal court review of state court decisions in federal election cases,” he said, referring to the decision issued on Tuesday.

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The judge should and most likely will do so in the future to create a more precise norm, he continued.

Due to a state law clause stating that interim maps can only be utilized for one election cycle, the North Carolina congressional map will be redone prior to the 2024 election. That map is probably going to lean substantially toward Republicans as a result of the most recent verdict by the North Carolina Supreme Court.

In addition to redistricting disputes, a Supreme Court decision supporting the theory would have had an impact on other election-related rules, such as mail-in voting and voter access to the polls, that legislatures might try to enact even when state courts have ruled that they do so in violation of state constitutions. The theory might also cast doubt on the governors’ ability to block legislation.

In the case Bush v. Gore from 2000, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist expressed support for the notion. Rehnquist’s opinion, which at the time did not have a majority, was cited by a number of justices during the oral argument in December in support of the idea that there ought to be some restrictions on the authority of state officials, including judges, to alter election laws passed by legislatures without the backing of the law.

Later, during the 2020 presidential election and afterward, proponents of former President Donald Trump have used the independent state legislature notion on a number of occasions.

Because of its potential influence on the 2024 presidential race, the North Carolina case was being keenly watched.

“The Supreme Court took an important and crucial step today in protecting our system of checks and balances,” said Hilary Harris Klein, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which brought the case against the Republican-drawn maps in North Carolina.

“Today’s decision will ensure that voters will continue to have the full protection of state constitutions against harmful and anti-democratic voter suppression and election manipulation,” she continued.

Eric Holder, who supported Democratic redistricting efforts while serving as attorney general under President Obama, said the decision “preserved the vital role state courts play in protecting free elections and fair maps for the American people.”

Republican attorney Jason Torchinsky, who specializes in election-related litigation, asserted that the court “made clear that state Supreme Courts cannot become supreme legislatures,” and he foresaw other cases on the subject.

After the North Carolina Supreme Court invalidated the congressional district plan in February of last year, Republicans led by Tim Moore, the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, used the idea as their justification.

In a state that was hotly fought by both major parties, Republicans created 14 congressional districts to maximize the impact of GOP supporters. The state court determined at the time that these districts were “unlawful partisan gerrymanders.” The maps, according to the court’s then-liberal majority, breached several state constitutional clauses, one of which demands that “all elections be free.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that charges of political gerrymandering could not be addressed in federal court but left open the potential that state courts may examine the matter, voting rights advocates and Democratic voters resorted to the state court.

Moore and other Republicans argued that the state court had overstepped its bounds and requested the Supreme Court to reinstall the maps right away. The substitute map used for the 2014 midterm elections was kept in place despite the high court’s decision to consider the case. Republicans and Democrats each took home seven seats.

In the numerous election-related lawsuits that the theory was brought in in 2020, the Supreme Court declined to become involved. However, during the litigation, four conservative justices showed some support for the idea, giving its proponents hope that there would be a majority willing to accept it.

There are various variations of the argument, some of which would just restrict state courts’ authority in specific situations and others of which would go farther by giving state legislators practically unrestricted power.

John Eastman, the attorney involved in Trump’s efforts to rig the 2020 election, supported the hypothesis in filings submitted to the court. He said that then-Vice President Mike Pence might prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021.

The notion has also received support from numerous conservative organizations that advocate for stricter voting regulations and assert that voter fraud is a significant problem.

In light of efforts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, Democrats and voting rights activists issued stern warnings about the case’s potential effects. However, many prominent GOP candidates who denied or questioned Biden’s victory lost in last year’s midterm elections.