The Supreme Court will take up a case from North Carolina next term that could upend federal elections by eliminating virtually all oversight of those elections by state courts. On Thursday, the justices granted review in Moore v. Harper, a dispute arising from the state’s efforts to draw new congressional maps in response to the 2020 census.
The doctrine at the heart of the case is known as the “independent state legislature” theory – the idea that, under the Constitution, only the legislature has the power to regulate federal elections, without interference from state courts. Proponents of the theory point to the Constitution’s elections clause, which gives state legislatures the power to set the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives.”
Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist was an early proponent of the theory. In a concurring opinion in Bush v. Gore, the 2000 case that halted the recount in Florida in the presidential election, Rehnquist (in an opinion joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas) outlined his view that the state court’s recount conflicted with the deadlines set by the state legislature for the election.
The issue returned to the Supreme Court in 2020, when the justices turned down a request by Pennsylvania Republicans to fast-track their challenge to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that required state election officials to count mail-in ballots received within three days of Election Day. In an opinion that accompanied the court’s order, Justice Samuel Alito (joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch) suggested that the state supreme court’s decision to extend the deadline for counting ballots likely violated the Constitution.
After the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature adopted a new congressional map in early November 2021, a group of Democratic voters and non-profits went to state court to challenge the map. They contended among other things that, because the state is roughly divided between Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters, the new map – which likely would have allowed Republicans to pick up two more seats in Congress, giving them as many as 10 of the state’s 14 seats – was a partisan gerrymander that violated the state’s constitution.
In February 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court blocked the state from using the map in the 2022 elections and ordered the trial court to either approve or adopt a new map before the end of the month. The trial court adopted a new map, drawn by three experts appointed by the court.
Republican state legislators came to the Supreme Court on an emergency basis in late February, asking the justices to reinstate the legislature’s original map before the state’s primary election, which took place on May 17. But over a dissent by Alito that was again joined by Thomas and Gorsuch, the court turned down the request. Both the Alito dissent and a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, however, called the “independent state legislature” theory an important question, with Alito adding that the justices “will have to resolve this question sooner or later, and the sooner we do so, the better.”
The legislators returned to the court later in March, seeking review of the North Carolina Supreme court’s decision invalidating the legislature’s map and ordering a new map for the 2022 elections. They told the justices that the state supreme court’s order was “starkly contrary to the” elections clause. The text of that clause, the legislators insisted “creates the power to regulate the times, places, and manner of federal elections and then vests that power in ‘the Legislature’ of each State.” The “independent state legislature” question, the legislators stressed “‘is almost certain to keep arising until the Court definitively resolves it.’” And because North Carolina will use the map created by the court for its 2022 congressional elections, they continued, the justices should resolve the question in this case, rather than having to do it on an expedited basis in a dispute arising after an election has already occurred.
State officials countered that the North Carolina dispute would not resolve the “independent state legislature” question at all, because the state legislature had specifically given the state’s courts the power to impose a temporary redistricting plan – just as the North Carolina Supreme Court did in this case.
One group of challengers added that, in any event, the U.S. Supreme Court lacked the authority to hear the dispute now, because there was no final judgment by the state supreme court, which is considering currently whether the replacement map is valid.
After considering the case at three consecutive conferences, the justices granted review on Thursday. The case will likely be argued in the fall, with a decision to follow sometime early next year.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.