WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced on Thursday that it would hear a case that could radically reshape how federal elections are conducted by giving state legislatures independent power, not subject to review by state courts, to set election rules in conflict with state constitutions.
The case has the potential to affect many aspects of the 2024 election, including by giving the justices power to influence the presidential race whenever state courts interpret their constitutions to require changes to state election laws.
The case concerns a voting map drawn by the North Carolina legislature that was rejected as a partisan gerrymander by the State Supreme Court. Republicans seeking to restore the legislative map argued that the state court was powerless to act under the so-called independent state legislature doctrine.
The doctrine is based on a reading of two similar provisions of the US Constitution. The one at issue in the North Carolina case, the Elections Clause, says: “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”
That means, North Carolina Republicans argued, that the state legislature has sole responsibility among state institutions for drawing congressional districts and that state courts have no role to play.
The North Carolina Supreme Court rejected the argument that it was not entitled to review the actions of the state legislature, saying that would be “repugnant to the sovereignty of states, the authority of state constitutions and the independence of state courts, and would produce absurd and dangerous consequences.”
In an earlier encounter with the case in March, when the challengers unsuccessfully sought emergency relief, three members of the US Supreme Court said they would have granted the application.
“This case presents an exceptionally important and recurring question of constitutional law, namely, the extent of a state court’s authority to reject rules adopted by a state legislature for use in conducting federal elections,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch.
But he said the court should consider it in an orderly fashion, he wrote, outside the context of an approaching election. He wrote that the court should grant a petition seeking review on the merits “in an appropriate case — either in this case from North Carolina or in a similar case from another state.”
The court has now granted the petition in the North Carolina case, Moore v. Harper, No. 21-1271, and it will hear arguments in its next term, which starts in October.
Some precedents of the US Supreme Court tend to undermine the independent state legislature doctrine.
When the court closed the doors of federal courts to claims of partisan gerrymandering in Rucho v. Common Cause in 2019, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the five most conservative members of the court, said state courts could continue to hear such cases — including in the context of congressional redistricting.
Lawyers defending the North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling in the new case said it was a poor vehicle for resolution of the scope of the independent state legislature doctrine, as the legislature itself had authorized state courts to review redistricting legislation.