SCOTUS Hears Case That Could Reshape Elections

NC legislators argue that courts can't interfere with election rules set by legislatures
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 7, 2022 2:40 PM CST
SCOTUS Hears Case That Could Reshape Elections
Light illuminates part of the Supreme Court building at dusk.   (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a high-stakes case that analysts say could radically change the way elections are conducted in America. The Moore v. Harper case, brought by Republican legislative leaders in North Carolina, cites the controversial "independent state legislature doctrine," the Charlotte Observer reports. The North Carolina legislators argue that the Constitution gave state legislatures the sole authority to set election rules, without interference from state courts. Opponents say removing checks and balances and allowing state legislatures to override state constitutions would be a disaster for democracy and would cause hundreds of election rules around the country to be struck down. A ruling is expected in June. More:

  • The background. The North Carolina Republicans are seeking to restore a redrawn congressional map that the state's Supreme Court rejected as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, CBS reports. The map would have led to likely Republican victories in 10 of the state's 14 House seats, though North Carolina is split roughly evenly between Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters. The 14 seats ended up evenly split between Republicans and Democrats under a court-ordered map in the midterm elections.

  • How the case could change elections. The case has "the potential to upend federal elections by eliminating virtually all oversight of those elections by state courts," writes Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog. According to the ACLU, "state courts, governors, and redistricting commissions could ... lose their power to invalidate, veto, or draw congressional maps," if the court sides with the legislators. "And the effects could apply well beyond gerrymandering, including dramatically changing how federal elections are conducted and giving state legislatures broad, unchecked power to set otherwise-illegal election rules."
  • Many conservatives have attacked theory. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that dozens of prominent conservatives have denounced the North Carolina legislators' argument and some have filed "friend of the court" briefs. The Conference of Chief Justices, representing all the chief justices of the top courts in all 50 states, has also filed a brief pointing out that the argument conflicts with precedent.
  • Theory has been rejected many times. Ian Millhiser at Vox, who calls the legal reasoning behind the independent state legislature doctrine "nonsensical," notes that it has been rejected by the top court numerous times in cases going back to 1916, though it appeared in a concurring opinion in the 2000 Bush v. Gore case. Millhiser says that when the Constitution was drafted, the word "legislature" was understood to mean "the power that makes laws," not state legislatures in particular.

  • Some justices seemed skeptical. During arguments Wednesday, a majority of justices seemed unwilling to rule in favor of completely removing state court oversight of elections, the Washington Post reports. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch appeared receptive to the legislators' argument, while Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson did not, per the Post. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett seemed skeptical of the arguments but "asked difficult questions of both sides," per CBS.
  • A "theory with big consequences." Kagan called the North Carolina legislators' argument a "theory with big consequences," per CBS. "I think what might strike a person is that this is a proposal that gets rid of the normal checks and balances on the way big governmental decisions are made in this country," she said. "You might think it gets rid of all those checks and balances at exactly the time when they are needed most." Attorney David H. Thompson, representing the legislators, said there would still be a "legal check from federal law and the political check of going to Congress."
(More US Supreme Court stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.