The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to hear a redistricting dispute in North Carolina, a case that could have major implications for suffrage across the country and fundamentally change the landscape of election law.
At the center of the high-profile case is the fate of a legal doctrine that allows state courts to control the behavior of state legislatures. A move to undermine the courts could empower state lawmakers in redistricting map disputes and potentially give them more freedom to intervene in federal elections.
The decision to hear the case is a boon for Republicans, who control a majority of state legislatures, and have seen congressional and state legislative maps overturned in state courts.
The so-called “independent state legislature” theory, which sits at the center of the legal machinery, was also pushed by former President Donald Trump’s allies after the 2020 election in the United States. as part of their attempt to effectively nullify voters’ will and potentially replace President Joe Biden’s voters with slates selected by Trump’s allies in state government.
If the theory is adopted by the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, critics say, rogue lawmakers would be free to act without any coercion from their state courts.
The case will be heard next school year.
Traditionally, according to Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, legislatures have established ground rules for the conduct of an election, but have not acted alone or with the final say. . The processes they have put in place, as they stand, are also subject to the intervention and interpretation of election administrators and state courts.
“If the Supreme Court adopts this theory, voters would see their rights further eroded by a neutralization of the ability of state courts to be more protective of voters than federal courts,” Hasen said.
The appeal at issue was brought to the High Court by Republicans in North Carolina who are challenging congressional maps drawn by state judges that favor Democrats.
The dispute began after North Carolina won a seat in the House of Representatives and the North Carolina General Assembly twice adopted new congressional district maps. On both occasions, however, the state Supreme Court rejected the maps and ultimately ordered the 2022 election to be held with maps drawn by judges. The court found that the General Assembly cards amounted to partisan gerrymanders and violated the provisions of the state constitution.
“Gaining a partisan advantage disproportionate to the level of statewide voter support for a political party is neither a compelling nor legitimate government interest,” the majority wrote in its statement. notice.
Lawyers for Republican State House Speaker Timothy Moore and State Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Philip Berger asked the Supreme Court to intervene to block the lower court’s decision on an emergency basis in March.
At the time, the court declined to intervene in the face of dissenting justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Alito, writing for his colleagues, said the case presented an “unusually important and recurring question of constitutional law”.
“If the language of the election clause is taken seriously, there must be some limit on the power of state courts to overrule actions taken by state legislatures when prescribing rules for the conduct of federal elections” , wrote Alito.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh agreed with his conservative colleagues that the court should eventually take up the question of the role of state courts. But he joined the majority in this case, allowing the cards to be used for future election procedures.
“This Court has repeatedly held that federal courts should not normally alter state election laws in the period close to an election,” Kavanaugh wrote.
After that loss on the emergency petition, David Thompson of Cooper & Kirk, an attorney representing North Carolina Republicans, returned to court to ask the judges to take up the appeal and decide the matter in time. to have an impact on future elections.
In court papers, he acknowledged that the 2022 congressional elections in North Carolina would be held according to current maps, but said the court should “intervene now to resolve this recurring issue of critical importance and ensure that the Congressional elections in 2024 and thereafter are conducted in a manner consistent with the express design of our Constitution.
He argued that the Election Clause “creates the power to regulate the times, places, and manner of federal elections, and then vests that power in each state’s ‘legislature’.”
“It does not leave states free to limit the power constitutionally vested in the legislature, or place it elsewhere in the machinery of state government, as a matter of state law,” he said. .
The intervention of state courts in the redistricting process has made headlines ahead of ongoing elections in a number of states.
The New York State Congressional and Senate primaries were pushed back to late August after the state’s highest court struck down two sets of maps drawn by the more Democratic-controlled legislature. early this year and set up a “special master” to create new frontiers.