By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rebuffed a legal theory favored by many conservatives that could hand sweeping power to state legislatures to establish rules for presidential and congressional elections and draft electoral maps giving huge advantages to the party already in control.
The justices, in a 6-3 decision authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, ruled against Republican state legislators in a case arising from a legal fight over their map of North Carolina’s 14 U.S. House of Representatives districts. The state’s top court last year blocked the map as unlawfully biased against Democratic voters.
The legislators had asked the justices to embrace a once-marginal legal theory, called the “independent state legislature” doctrine, that would remove any role of state courts and state constitutions in regulating federal elections. The theory is based in part on the U.S. Constitution’s statement that the “times, places and manner” of federal elections “shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”
“The Elections Clause does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review,” Roberts wrote of that constitutional provision.
Roberts was joined by fellow conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett as well as the court’s three liberal members. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented, saying the case should have been dismissed.
Critics of the “independent state legislature” doctrine, including many legal scholars, Democrats and liberal voting rights advocates, have called it a threat to American democratic norms.
The doctrine has gained ground among some Republican politicians, who have passed laws and restrictions in numerous states they have said are aimed at combating voter fraud. These efforts accelerated following Republican former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.
Manipulating electoral district boundaries to marginalize certain voters and increase the influence of others is a practice called gerrymandering. Critics of the doctrine have said its application would let legislatures easily pass further voting restrictions or pursue extreme partisan gerrymandering. The Supreme Court in 2019 barred federal judges from curbing partisan gerrymandering.
Abha Khanna, an attorney for some of the map’s challengers, hailed Tuesday’s ruling as a “resounding victory for free and fair elections in the United States.”
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said, “This is a good decision that curbs some of the power of Republican state legislatures and affirms the importance of checks and balances. But Republican legislators in North Carolina and across the country remain a very real threat to democracy as they continue to pass laws to manipulate elections for partisan gain by interfering with the freedom to vote.”
Roberts, while rejecting the legislators’ main arguments, cautioned that “state courts do not have free rein” to undermine power that the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures to craft election rules.
Roberts stopped short of announcing a legal test for determining when a state court has ventured too far. That issue is “sure to be back at the court in future years, when state courts reject legislatively drawn maps and take it upon themselves to draw districts,” said Michael Dimino, a professor at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Pennsylvania.
DRAWING ELECTORAL DISTRICTS
The North Carolina Supreme Court, whose judges are elected by the voters in the state, last year ruled that the map unlawfully disadvantaged Democrats and that partisan gerrymandering violated the North Carolina state constitution. A replacement map was in effect for the November 2022 elections.
The state court’s composition flipped in the November elections from a having a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority. In April, it overruled its 2022 decision, concluding that state courts do not have the power to rein in electoral map drawing by politicians to entrench one party in power.
Timothy Moore, the speaker of North Carolina’s House of Representatives who defended the Republican-drawn map, said that “fortunately the current Supreme Court of North Carolina has rectified bad precedent from the previous majority,” reaffirming the legislature’s state constitutional authority.
“We will continue to move forward with the redistricting process later this year,” Moore added.
Electoral districts are redrawn each decade to reflect population changes as measured by a national census, last taken in 2020. In most states, such redistricting is done by the party in power, which can lead to map manipulation for partisan gain.
Numerous plaintiffs, including Democratic voters, sued after North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature passed its version of the congressional map in 2021. The plaintiffs argued the map violated the North Carolina state constitution’s provisions concerning free elections and freedom of assembly, among others.
Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration argued against the Republican position when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in December.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)
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