WASHINGTON (AFP) — The US Supreme Court, in a closely watched case with major ramifications for federal elections, ruled on Tuesday that state legislatures do not have unchecked power to decide voting laws.
In a 6-3 decision penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, the nation’s highest court rejected the so-called “independent state legislature” theory.
Republican lawmakers in North Carolina had argued before the court in December that state legislatures should have the sole authority to decide who votes, where and how in presidential and congressional elections.
The prospect had raised concerns for democracy on the left — and to a lesser extent on the right — in a bitterly divided nation still reeling from former president Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 election results.
State legislatures have used their authority under the US Constitution’s Elections Clause to map congressional districts, set poll hours and agree on rules for voter registration and mail-in and absentee ballots.
They have also, at times, engaged in what is known as partisan gerrymandering — drawing up congressional districts to favor a particular political party.
Their laws have been subject, however, to scrutiny by the state courts and North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers were seeking to do away with that judicial input.
The Supreme Court rejected that bid with Roberts and two other conservatives — Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — siding with the three liberal justices.
“The Elections Clause does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review,” Roberts wrote.
Obama welcomes ruling
Former Democratic president Barack Obama welcomed the decision.
“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,” Obama tweeted.
Abha Khanna, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, called the ruling a “resounding victory for free and fair elections in the United States.”
“The Independent State Legislature Theory could have weakened the foundation of our democracy, removing a crucial check on state legislatures,” Khanna said in a statement.
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court in December, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the administration of Democratic US President Joe Biden, warned that accepting the “independent state legislature” doctrine would “wreak havoc” in the running of elections and “sow chaos on the ground.”
“State and federal elections would have to be administered under divergent rules,” Prelogar said. “And federal courts, including this court, would be flooded with new claims.”
There were also worries that a ruling in favor of the theory would allow state legislatures to override outcomes they disagreed with, as some Trump supporters had called for in the 2020 election.
The case, Moore v. Harper, stemmed from an electoral dispute in North Carolina.
The 2020 census found that the state’s population had increased, earning it an extra seat in the US House of Representatives.
North Carolina lawmakers redrew the congressional map to add a new district but the state supreme court threw it out, arguing that it favored Republicans by grouping Democrats in certain districts, diluting their vote.
North Carolina lawmakers appealed to the Supreme Court arguing that local courts were usurping their authority.