The Washington Examiner is reporting:
June 27, 2023 10:24 AM
A group of Republican lawmakers from North Carolina argued that the theory (the idea that the Constitution's elections clause gives state legislators nearly unfettered authority to regulate federal elections without interference from state courts) barred the state's high court from setting aside congressional maps drawn by the state's legislature.
The 6-3 majority decision in Moore v. Harper held that the elections clause "does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review."
The ruling also featured the court's three liberal justices in the majority alongside conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissent that was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch and in part by Justice Samuel Alito.
"The reasoning we unanimously embraced in Smiley [v. Holm] commands our continued respect," Roberts wrote. "A state legislature may not 'create congressional districts independently of' requirements imposed 'by the state constitution with respect to the enactment of laws.'"
In April, the recently formed conservative majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned a previous ruling done under a Democratic majority that disallowed partisan gerrymandering, allowing Republicans in the state to redraw the state's congressional lines in a way that heavily favored the GOP. That decision threw into question the status of a case at the U.S. Supreme Court and whether that court's 6-3 Republican-appointed majority would rule on a contentious ISL theory.
The independent state legislature argument found its basis by citing language in the Constitution that says election rules “shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”
Roberts emphasized that the Supreme Court "has an obligation to ensure state court interpretations of state law does not evade federal law," reinforcing the rule that federal election law is policed by federal courts. He furthered that “state courts may not transgress the ordinary bounds of judicial review such that they arrogate to themselves the power vested in state legislatures to regulate federal elections."
"Although we conclude that the Elections Clause does not exempt state legislatures from the ordinary constraints imposed by state law, state courts do not have free rein," Roberts added.
Proponents of the ISL theory, which has never been embraced by the Supreme Court, argued that it supports the notion that legislatures have ultimate power under state law when it comes to setting election rules.
Michael R. Dimino, a professor at the Widener University Commonwealth Law School, told the Washington Examiner the high court affirmed, "The state legislature does not have the ability to ignore its own state constitution when it draws districts."
"The Supreme Court indicated that state courts, too, must respect the limits of their own authority and must not usurp legislative authority when they review the legality of congressional districts," Dimino said.
Dimino and other legal experts pointed out the justices declined to indicate whether a state court "crossed the line" and invaded the proper authority of the legislature. "That issue will surely be back at the court in future years, when state courts reject legislatively drawn maps and take it upon themselves to draw districts," he said.
North Carolina GOP lawmakers had urged the Supreme Court to reach a ruling on the merits of the theory despite the state Supreme Court's reversal of its previous decision to invalidate the legislature's maps.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration, along with three groups opposing the ISL theory, told the court that the case should be considered moot.
Thomas said in his dissent that the question in the dispute is "indisputably moot" and that "today's majority opinion is plainly advisory."
"The issue on which it opines — a federal defense to claims already dismissed on other grounds — can no longer affect the judgment in this litigation in any way," Thomas wrote.
Elias Law Group Partner Abha Khanna, the counsel of record for the Harper plaintiffs in the Moore case, called the decision a "resounding victory for free and fair elections."
"The independent state legislature theory is a dangerous, fringe legal theory that has no place in our democracy. In its most extreme form, the Independent State Legislature Theory could have weakened the foundation of our democracy," Khanna said, adding that "we are incredibly relieved" by the decision.
The conservative-leaning Honest Elections Project previously said that an embrace of the ISL theory would be a "net positive" to prevent state courts from rewriting the legislature's written election code. The executive director of the group, Jason Snead, told the Washington Examiner the overall decision on Tuesday might act as a "protective bulwark against the most extreme misuses of the courts."
"That's what Marc Elias and others are constantly asking courts to do, is embrace novel fringe legal theories as a pretext to seize the power to rewrite election laws," Snead said.
The state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, lauded Tuesday’s decision but also acknowledged that it does nothing to inhibit Republicans who control the legislature from drawing a congressional map that is more favorable to them.
Had the Supreme Court embraced the theory, it would have affected not only redistricting disputes but also would have altered other election-related rules on matters such as access to the polls and mail-in voting.
North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, the namesake of the case, announced Tuesday, "We will continue to move forward with our redistricting process later this year."
"Ultimately, the question of the role of state courts in congressional redistricting needed to be settled, and this decision has done just that," Moore said, noting the state Supreme Court "rectified bad precedent from the previous majority" earlier this year.
The decision marked another surprise at the high court on election-related disputes after court watchers theorized the Republican-appointed majority could be poised to side with the state lawmakers.
Earlier this month, the justices held that Alabama discriminated against black voters during its redistricting process last year when it failed to create a second majority-black district.
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