The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the radical right-wing theory that state legislatures have almost unlimited power to decide the rules for federal elections and draw partisan congressional maps without interference from state courts.
The ruling in Moore v. Harper is a major victory for voters, given the potential the case had to shatter the checks and balances that serve as underpinnings of American democracy.
By rejecting the reckless “independent state legislature theory” at the heart of the case, the Court extinguished partisan legislative attempts to manipulate election rules and voting maps without facing the checks and balances served by the state courts and governors.
The Constitution’s Elections Clause “does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in a 6 to 3 decision.
Under the theory advanced by North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders, but rejected by the court, state lawmakers throughout the country would have had exclusive authority to structure federal elections, subject only to intervention by Congress.
The “independent state legislature theory” holds that the U.S. Constitution gives that power to lawmakers even if it results in extreme partisan voting maps for congressional seats and violates voter protections enshrined in state constitutions.
Republicans in the North Carolina state legislature drafted a congressional district map that went up for review by the North Carolina superior court. The state court struck down that map as unconstitutional and implemented its own map, which was drafted by a group of outside redistricting experts.
The case could have had a major influence on the results of the 2024 election.
It has drawn attention in part because of the nation’s polarized politics, where former President Donald Trump has used lies to advocate for overturning the 2020 election.
The midterms showed that control of Congress can depend on the drawing of extremely partisan congressional district lines.
The theory comes from a strict reading of the Constitution’s elections clause, which says: “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court rejected arguments for Moore v. Harper — a potentially precedent-shattering case centered around the historically baseless “independent state legislature theory”—or as I call it, the Lawless Legislature Theory,” said voting rights advocate Lisa McCormick. “Common sense prevailed against a group of extremist North Carolina Republicans who argued that state legislatures should have unchecked authority over congressional redistricting and the power to overrule the will of voters in elections.”
“Today’s ruling is a victory for all Americans who stand for our democracy’s promise of free and fair elections,” said Kathay Feng, Common Cause’s vice president of programs. “Now Congress must act and pass long overdue protections for voters, so that we can put an end once and for all to the persistent attempts to undermine and restrict our right to vote.”
“This is a historic victory for the people of North Carolina and for American democracy,” said Bob Phillips, Common Cause North Carolina’s executive director. “Today, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that state courts and state constitutions should serve as a critical check against abuses of power by legislators. Now, we must ensure our state courts fulfill their duty to protect our freedoms against attacks by extremist politicians.”
“The Supreme Court took an important and crucial step today in protecting our system of checks and balances,” said Hilary Harris Klein, Senior Counsel for Voting Rights at Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Today’s decision will ensure that voters will continue to have the full protection of state constitutions against harmful and anti-democratic voter suppression and election manipulation.”
“I am proud to stand with Common Cause, the leading nonpartisan group in our nation devoted to protecting the right to vote,” said Neal Katyal of Hogan Lovells. “As we argued to the Supreme Court, the independent state legislature theory was contrary to precedent and would have called into question hundreds of state constitutional provisions and decisions. Today’s ruling affirms the crucial role state courts play in overseeing federal elections.”