Supreme Court Upholds State Court’s Authority in Election-Related CaseBy Stacy M. Brown, NNPA National Correspondent / June 30, 2023
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to impose new restrictions on state courts regarding election-related matters.
The decision came as the Court ruled against Republicans in North Carolina fighting for a congressional district map that favored their candidates.
The justices voted 6-3, stating that the North Carolina Supreme Court had acted within its authority by deeming the map a partisan gerrymander under the state Constitution.
The ruling rejects the “independent state legislature” theory, an obscure legal argument made by Republicans.
The theory argues that state courts have limited power to strike down election laws enacted by state legislatures.
However, the Supreme Court’s decision refused to adopt this broad interpretation, much to the relief of voting rights groups and Democrats concerned about potential limitations on state court authority.
Former President Barack Obama expressed his approval of the Court’s decision, tweeting, “Today the Supreme Court rejected the fringe independent state legislature theory that threatened to upend our democracy and dismantle our system of checks and balances.”
The “independent state legislature” argument centers on the language of the Elections Clause in the Constitution, which states that election rules “shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”
Proponents of the theory claim that this language gives state legislatures ultimate power over federal election rules under state law, potentially overriding any constraints imposed by state constitutions.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, agreed that state courts could apply state constitutional restraints when legislatures exercise the power granted by the Elections Clause.
However, he noted that state courts should be within the bounds of ordinary judicial review when conflicts with federal law arise.
Federal courts can intervene in such cases, according to the Court’s conclusion.
The North Carolina Supreme Court had previously issued the ruling.
Still, following the midterm elections, the court composition changed to Republican control, and the decision was recently overturned.
That development raised questions about whether the Supreme Court needed to decide the case at all.
Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by fellow conservative justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented, arguing that the case was moot.
Thomas expressed concern that the decision would create confusion in lower courts, potentially leading to more cases resembling the controversial Bush v. Gore ruling in 2000 and ultimately resulting in Republican George W. Bush becoming president.
In a separate opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh hinted that the Court might address the scope of state court authority in a future case.
He emphasized that the Court had established a general principle for federal court review of state court decisions in federal election cases.
He suggested that a more specific standard would be distilled in due course.
Although the congressional map in North Carolina will be redrawn before the 2024 election due to a state law provision, the Supreme Court’s ruling suggests that the new map is likely to favor Republicans heavily.
Had the Court embraced the “independent state legislature” theory, it would have impacted redistricting disputes and other election-related rules, including issues like mail-in voting and voter access to the polls.
This theory could have also called into question the power of governors to veto legislation.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist had endorsed a version of the theory in the 2000 Bush v. Gore case.
During the recent oral arguments, several justices referenced Rehnquist’s opinion to support the notion of constraining state officials, including judges, from making changes to election laws enacted by legislatures without proper legal grounding.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump cited the “independent state legislature” theory in various cases related to the 2020 presidential election.
Republicans, including Tim Moore, used the theory after the North Carolina Supreme Court invalidated the congressional district map last year. They argued that the state court had exceeded its authority.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but maintained an interim map for the 2022 midterm elections, in which Democrats and Republicans each won seven seats.
The Supreme Court had previously declined to intervene in election-related cases involving the theory. However, during the litigation, four conservative justices indicated some level of support, fueling hopes among proponents of the theory.
The argument had various versions, some of which sought to limit the authority of state courts in specific circumstances, while others aimed to provide state legislatures with virtually unchecked power.
Prominent figures supporting the theory included John Eastman, a lawyer involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
Eastman argued that then-Vice President Mike Pence could block the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021.
Conservative groups advocating for stricter voting restrictions and claiming widespread voter fraud, which did not occur, also supported the theory.
Democrats and voting rights activists had raised concerns about the case, particularly in light of attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
It is worth noting that many high-profile Republican candidates who questioned or denied Biden’s victory lost in the 2022 midterm elections.
“This 6-3 decision should put an end to the radical theory that state legislatures can operate without being bound by state constitutions or judicial review,” said Dr. Jennifer Jones of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The fight to end partisan gerrymanders is still ongoing, and politicians in North Carolina and other states may still try to lock in their power through biased maps, but today’s decision confirms that those legislators’ power is not absolute. Today’s decision is a relief for everyone concerned with free and fair elections.”