WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to place new limits on state courts reviewing certain election-related matters, ruling against North Carolina Republicans fighting for a map of congressional districts it would heavily favor. to their candidates.
The justices ruled in a 6-3 vote that the North Carolina Supreme Court was acting within its authority in concluding that the map constituted partisan tampering under the state constitution.
In doing so, the court refused to adopt a hitherto obscure legal argument called the «independent state legislature» theory, which Republicans say limits the state court’s authority to strike down certain election laws enacted by state legislatures.
The independent state legislature’s argument hinges on language in the Constitution’s Election Clause which says that electoral rules «shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.»
«State courts retain the authority to apply state constitutional restrictions when legislatures act on the power vested in them by the Election Clause,» Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
He added, however, that state courts do not have «free rein» when there are conflicts with federal law.
After the then-Democratic controlled state Supreme Court handed down the ruling last year, the court shifted to Republican control after the November midterm elections and recently overturned the decision, a move that raised questions about if the judges needed to decide the case.
Dissenting, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by fellow Conservatives Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Neil Gorsuch, said the case was moot.
Regardless, the map of Congress in North Carolina will be redrawn before the 2024 election due to a provision in state law that says provisional maps can only be used for one election cycle. As a result of the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling, that map is likely to lean heavily toward the Republicans.
Supporters of the theory, which has never been upheld by the Supreme Court, say the language supports the notion that, when it comes to federal election rules, legislatures hold ultimate power under state law, potentially regardless of possible restrictions imposed by state constitutions.
A Supreme Court ruling accepting the theory would have affected not only redistricting disputes, but also other election-related rules on issues such as voting by mail and voter access to the polls that legislatures might attempt. enact even when state courts have held that those rules violate state constitutions. The theory could also call into question the power of governors to veto legislation.
Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist adopted a version of the theory in Bush v. Gore issued later in 2000, which eventually led to Republican George W. Bush taking office as president. During oral argument in December, several justices cited the opinion of Rehnquist, who did not win a majority at the time, in support of the notion that there should be some restrictions on the scope of state officials, including judges, to make changes. in election laws enacted by legislatures that are not anchored in law.
The independent state legislature theory has subsequently been cited by supporters of former President Donald Trump in several instances during the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath.
The North Carolina case was being closely watched for its potential impact on the 2024 presidential election.
Republicans led by Tim Moore, the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, invoked the theory after the state Supreme Court struck down the map of congressional districts in February last year.
The state court then ruled that the 14 congressional districts, which Republicans drew to maximize the influence of Republican voters in a state heavily contested by the two major parties, were «illegal party rigging.» The court’s then-liberal majority said the maps violated several state constitutional provisions, one of which requires that «all elections be free.»
Voting rights advocates and Democratic voters turned to state court after the US Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that claims of partisan district rigging could not be heard in federal court, but left open the possibility that state courts could address the issue.
Moore and other Republicans immediately asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the maps, saying the state court had exceeded its authority. The high court agreed to take the case, but left in its place a replacement map used for this year’s midterm elections. Democrats and Republicans each won seven seats.
The Supreme Court in 2020 declined to intervene in the various election-related cases that raised the theory, but during the litigation four conservative justices it indicated some support for him, giving his supporters hope that they might be a majority willing to accept him.
There are several versions of the argument, some of which would simply limit the authority of state courts in certain circumstances and others of which go further by granting legislatures virtually unlimited authority.
Supporters of the theory in briefs filed in court included John Eastman, the lawyer involved in Trump’s efforts to nullify the 2020 election who argued that then-Vice President Mike Pence could block the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021.
Several conservative groups that push for greater voting restrictions and say voter fraud is a major problem have also endorsed the theory.
Democrats and voting rights activists issued stark warnings about the case’s potential impact in light of attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, though many high-profile Republican candidates who denied or questioned Biden’s victory lost. in last year’s midterm elections.