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Supreme Court backs state court power in federal election cases

In case over North Carolina congressional map, justices largely turned down a theory that could have boosted state legislatures

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks in December outside the Supreme Court during  oral arguments in a case that stems from the redrawing of congressional maps by the GOP-led North Carolina state legislature following the 2020 Census.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks in December outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments in a case that stems from the redrawing of congressional maps by the GOP-led North Carolina state legislature following the 2020 Census. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an effort from North Carolina state legislators to trim the power of state courts to review federal election rules in a dispute over the state’s congressional map.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the 6-3 opinion about North Carolina’s congressional districts, which a state court had ruled were a violation of state constitutional protections against partisan gerrymandering.

The Supreme Court decision backed the power of state courts to review laws that states pass to govern federal elections, and largely turned down a theory that could have given state legislatures more sway over federal elections.

Experts and challengers to the map had said that if the Supreme Court had sided with the theory put forward by the North Carolina lawmakers, it could throw into doubt hundreds of election rules across the nation, such as congressional maps or the locations of polling places.

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., praised the ruling for rejecting the “radical” so-called independent state legislature theory.

“Free and fair elections are fundamental to our democracy — and Republican state legislatures don’t get to unilaterally decide election laws without restriction or review,” Durbin tweeted.

The decision may not have an immediate effect in the Tar Heel State, where political and court drama has upended the legal situation around challenges to the congressional map.

Jack Pandol, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement that the decision “has no practical effect on the already-underway redistricting effort in North Carolina. We look forward to the North Carolina General Assembly drawing fair lines that best represent North Carolina.”

Lawmakers bound

Roberts wrote for the majority that when legislatures make laws, “they are bound by the provisions of the very documents that give them life” and face limits imposed by state constitutions, such as gubernatorial vetoes and state court review.

The court also found that state courts “do not have free rein” over federal election rules — but left open the question of when state courts go too far.

The case centered on a 2021 opinion from the state Supreme Court. Voter challengers argued that the map unfairly favored Republicans, who would likely win 10 or 11 of the state’s 14 congressional seats in a state former President Donald Trump won by 1 percentage point in 2020.

Eventually the state courts approved a new map for the 2022 elections. Under the court-approved map, voters sent seven Democrats and seven Republicans to Congress.

The Republican legislators argued that only federal courts have the power to find that the state constitution banned partisan gerrymandering and order a new map, known as the “independent state legislature theory.”

The theory is based on the Elections Clause of the Constitution, which says state legislatures have the power to set the “Times, Places and Manner” of federal elections, subject to legislation from Congress.

Abha Khanna, an attorney at the Elias Law Group, which represented one of the groups of challengers, said they are “incredibly relieved” that the Supreme Court rejected “a dangerous, fringe legal theory that has no place in our democracy.”

“In its most extreme form, the Independent State Legislature Theory could have weakened the foundation of our democracy, removing a crucial check on state legislatures and making it easier for rogue legislators to enact policies that suppress voters and subvert elections without adequate oversight from state court,” Khanna said.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and in part by Samuel A. Alito Jr., wrote that the Constitution only supported “procedural” limits on legislatures’ ability to set rules for federal elections, such as a governor’s veto power, rather than substantive court review.

Thomas also criticized the vague standard in the majority decision for when a state Supreme Court overstepped its bounds.

He said it left open the possibility of the courts facing high-stakes decisions over state court election rulings similar to the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore over Florida election law.

“In this way, the majority opens a new field for Bush-style controversies over state election law — and a far more uncertain one,” Thomas wrote.

Not moot

Following oral arguments at the court in December, and after the North Carolina Supreme Court’s partisan makeup changed in last year’s election, the state court granted rehearing in a related case. In April, the state court reversed itself in that related case, which wiped out the precedent that the case at the U.S. Supreme Court was based on.

That means the state can now use its original congressional map — which is just fine with the state’s legislative leaders. Most parties in the Supreme Court case, including the legislators, argued to dismiss it as moot because of those rulings.

In his dissent, Thomas argued that reversal meant the case should have been dismissed as moot, since “this case is over, and the petitioners won.”

But Roberts wrote that the state Supreme Court decision did not actually set aside the judgment that resulted in a new map, which allowed the federal Supreme Court to rule on the issue.

Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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