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Supreme Court Rejects “Independent State Legislature” Theory, Affirms State Court Authority in Federal Elections

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court made a significant decision in the case of Moore v. Harper, rejecting the “independent state legislature” theory advocated by Republicans. This theory would have granted state legislatures almost unchecked power to draw new redistricting maps and pass restrictive voting laws without review by state courts or other entities. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the 6-3 majority, stated that the Elections Clause does not give exclusive authority to state legislatures to set rules for federal elections.

The rejection of this theory is highly consequential, as even a partial acceptance would have had drastic effects on election administration.[0] If the court had ruled that state supreme courts cannot overturn legislatively drawn congressional maps, it would have removed one of the few checks in states where one party has complete control over the redistricting process. This would have opened the door to more aggressive gerrymandering.[0] Furthermore, the impact may not have been limited to congressional maps; state courts might not have been able to strike down any federal election laws, such as voter ID requirements or restrictions on absentee voting.[0] Essentially, this case had the potential to weaken the Democrats' ability to combat restrictive voting laws.[0] However, with the court's decision, they retain that ability.[1]

The Supreme Court firmly rejected the most extreme interpretation of the independent state legislature theory, which argued that state courts have no power over federal elections. Chief Justice Roberts' opinion stated that state legislatures are bound by state constitutions when making rules for federal elections, and the Elections Clause does not allow them to evade normal checks and balances. In essence, state legislatures do not have exclusive power over federal elections, and state courts have the authority to review their actions.[0]

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, questioning why the court was ruling on a case that had been deemed moot by a newly elected conservative majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court.[2] However, Thomas also found the majority's reasoning unpersuasive and suggested that the ruling could lead to serious issues for the judiciary.[3] Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Thomas's dissent in full, while Justice Samuel Alito joined only the part arguing that the case was moot.[4]

Despite losing on the main issue, Republican leaders in North Carolina were pleased that the court did not halt their plans to redraw the state's congressional maps.[5] These new maps, once drawn, are likely to benefit Republicans and potentially allow them to flip multiple Democratic-held seats in the House of Representatives next year.[5] However, the court's decision will not have an immediate impact in North Carolina, as the state's Supreme Court has already reversed the original ruling that struck down the gerrymandered maps.

The court's ruling leaves the option for federal courts to review decisions from state courts in certain circumstances regarding election policies. However, the specifics of when federal courts can get involved are yet to be determined and will likely be tested in future cases.[6]

In conclusion, the Supreme Court's decision in Moore v. Harper is significant, as it rejects the “independent state legislature” theory and affirms the authority of state courts in reviewing actions by state legislatures regarding federal elections. The decision preserves the Democrats' ability to challenge restrictive voting laws and maintains checks and balances in the redistricting process. While the ruling may not have an immediate impact in North Carolina, it sets a precedent for future cases and clarifies the role of state and federal courts in election administration.

0. “What The Supreme Court’s New Ruling Does — And Doesn’t — Mean For 2024” FiveThirtyEight, 27 Jun. 2023, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/supreme-court-moore-harper-2024-election/

1. “The Supreme Court planted a time bomb for voting in Moore v. Harper.” Slate, 27 Jun. 2023, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2023/06/supreme-court-voting-moore-v-harper-time-bomb.html

2. “The Supreme Court struck down a GOP effort to subvert elections” Quartz, 27 Jun. 2023, https://qz.com/the-us-supreme-court-struck-down-a-gop-effort-to-subver-1850581234

3. “Supreme Court rules against North Carolina Republicans over election law theory” SCOTUSblog, 27 Jun. 2023, https://www.scotusblog.com/2023/06/supreme-court-rules-against-north-carolina-republicans-over-election-law-theory

4. “The Roberts Court Draws a Line” The Atlantic, 27 Jun. 2023, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/06/scotus-independent-state-legislature-moore-v-harper-decision/674545

5. “US Supreme Court rules for NC lawmakers in redistricting case Moore v. Harper” WRAL News, 15 Jun. 2023, https://www.wral.com/story/supreme-court-rules-on-Moore-v-Harper-gerrymandering-case-that-critics-say-could-harm-american-democracy/20901044

6. “Supreme Court's election rulings give democracy advocates reason to cheer” The Washington Post, 28 Jun. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/06/27/supreme-court-election-ruling-democracy