US Supreme Court rejects attempt to give lawmakers unchecked power over elections

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to give state-level politicians more power over federal elections by limiting the ability of state courts to review their actions, inflicting a defeat on Republican lawmakers in Carolina North.

The 6-3 ruling, written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, upheld a 2022 North Carolina Supreme Court ruling against Republican lawmakers. In doing so, the High Court refused to adopt a once fringe legal theory, now favored by many conservatives, that would remove any role for the courts and state constitutions in regulating presidential and congressional elections.

The legal theory, known as the “independent state legislature” doctrine, is based in part on the declaration of the U.S. Constitution that “the times, places, and manner ‘of federal elections’ shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof”.

“The Electoral Clause does not insulate the state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review,” Roberts wrote of this constitutional provision.

Conservative justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch disagreed with the ruling.

The case began as a fight over a map drawn by Republican lawmakers for the 14 U.S. House of Representatives districts — a map the North Carolina Supreme Court has blocked as illegally biased against Democratic voters. Another state court replaced that map with one drawn by a bipartisan panel of experts, and that one was in effect for the November 2022 election.

The Supreme Court action comes after North Carolina’s highest court in April, following a change in that court’s partisan makeup, reversed its previous ruling that invalidated the Republican-drawn electoral map .

The North Carolina Supreme Court, whose justices are elected by voters in the state, went in the November election from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority. April, this court determined that state courts lacked the power to curb voter map-making by politicians to entrench a party in power, a practice known as partisan gerrymandering.

Last year, when that court had a majority of Democratic judges, it ruled that a map of congressional districts unlawfully disadvantages Democrats and that partisan gerrymandering violates the North Carolina state constitution.

Gerrymandering is a practice involving the manipulation of electoral boundaries to marginalize a certain group of voters and increase the influence of others.

Legislative districts across the country are redrawn to reflect demographic changes documented in the national census conducted by the federal government every ten years. North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature has adopted a new electoral map following the 2020 U.S. Census.

Critics of the “independent state legislature” doctrine, including many jurists, Democrats, and liberal suffrage advocates, have portrayed it as a threat to American democratic standards. These critics said its application would make it easy for legislatures to pass new voting restrictions or pursue extreme partisan gerrymandering. In 2019, the Supreme Court barred federal judges from curbing partisan gerrymandering.

The doctrine has gained traction among conservatives and Republican politicians, who have passed new laws and restrictions in many states that they say are aimed at combating voter fraud. Those efforts accelerated following former Republican President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him due to widespread voter fraud.

North Carolina Republicans have argued that the Constitution gives state legislatures — not other entities such as state courts — power over election rules and electoral district maps. They argued that the state court usurped the authority of the North Carolina General Assembly under this provision to regulate federal elections.

Many plaintiffs, including Democratic voters, sued after the North Carolina Legislature passed its version of the Congressional map in 2021. The plaintiffs argued that the map violated provisions of the state constitution of North Carolina regarding free elections and freedom of assembly, among others.

Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration opposed the Republican position when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in December.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung)

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