The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against North Carolina’s Republicans, saying state lawmakers do not have sole authority to set rules for federal elections without interference from state judges.
The 6-3 decision in Moore vs. Harper, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., rejected the GOP claim that state legislatures make the rules alone.
“When state legislatures prescribe the rules concerning federal elections, they remain subject to the ordinary exercise of state judicial review,” he wrote. “State courts retain the authority to apply state constitutional restraints when legislatures act under the power conferred upon them by the elections clause.”
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch dissented.
The decision will make it harder for the dominant political party to gerrymander district voting maps to lock in control of most of the seats.
Democrats and many public-interest advocates had worried that the conservative court would bolster GOP lawmakers and potentially enable them to defy the will of the voters in the 2024 presidential race by choosing a slate of Republican electors even if the Democratic candidate wins more votes in their state.
Usually disputes over state election laws are resolved by state judges and the state supreme court. Until recently, it was understood that the state supreme court had the final word on state laws.
But Republican lawmakers argued that the U.S. Constitution sets a different rule for elections of federal officials. They pointed to the clause that says the “Times, Places and Manner” of electing senators and representatives “shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”
Citing this provision, they argued that state supreme courts did not have the authority to overrule election rules set by state lawmakers. This has been dubbed the “independent state legislature theory”.
The Constitution has a similar provision for electing the president. It says “each state shall appoint” the electors who choose the president “in such manner as the Legislature may direct.”
All the states have adopted laws that say their electors will be chosen based on the outcome of the popular vote in the state.
But after President Trump lost his reelection bid to then-candidate Joe Biden in 2020, he and some of his supporters urged Republican state lawmakers to defy the law and appoint electors for Trump, not Biden. None did so, however.
Democrats and many election law experts voiced alarm that if the Supreme Court upheld the Republicans’ claim that state legislatures had “independent” authority over elections, GOP lawmakers might select a slate of Republican electors even if the Democratic candidate prevailed in a close race.
The issue came before the Supreme Court last year in a dispute over partisan gerrymandering by Republican state legislators in North Carolina. They drew a voting map that would have given the GOP a clear edge in 10 of the state’s 14 districts for electing U.S. representatives.
Common Cause sued and argued the map was highly partisan and did not fairly reflect the views of the state’s voters. They won before the state Supreme Court, which then had a 4-3 majority of Democratic appointees. Those judges said the state constitution promised free and fair elections, and they ordered a new map for the 2022 mid-term elections. Under that map, the state elected seven Republicans and seven Democrats to the House.
But the state’s Republican leaders appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and argued that the state judges did not have the authority to override the legislature and impose their own map for electing members of Congress.
The high court agreed to hear their appeal and the justices sounded closely split when they heard arguments in December.
But the month before, Republicans had won two seats on the state supreme court, giving them a 5-2 majority. Shortly afterward, the new majority announced it would reconsider the anti-gerrymandering ruling that had infuriated the GOP lawmakers.
On April 28, the state court overturned the earlier ruling and said state lawmakers were entirely free to draw election districts to give their party an advantage. The vote was 5-2.