The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state judges do indeed possess the authority “to apply state constitutional restraints“ to elections carried out under the Elections Clause of Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, delivering a major blow to Republican–led states.
In a 6–3 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the Elections Clause “does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review,” allowing state courts to override state legislatures when it comes to federal elections. The court‘s four liberal justices were joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh in upholding state judiciaries‘ power. Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Samuel Alito dissented.
The case, Moore v. Harper, originated in North Carolina, where a Democrat–majority State Supreme Court overturned gerrymandered congressional district maps submitted by state Republicans. The court ruled that the maps violated the state constitution, and ordered state lawmakers to come up with new maps. That decision ultimately resulted in seven seats going to each party.
In response, GOP legislators argued that the court was unconstitutionally interfering with their authority to set federal election guidelines, and appealed to the Supreme Court. They argued the “independent state legislature” (ISL) doctrine, which hinged on the interpretation of the Constitution giving state legislatures “plenary“ power to carry out elections, and asked SCOTUS to apply this doctrine in the case.
The ruling was a major victory for pro–democracy activists, with many saying it paves the way for greater pushback against partisan legislatures seeking to stack the deck in their favor.
“In our system, there is no room for a rogue legislature that can violate its own founding charter without any checks from other branches of government,” said Ari Savitzky, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
Republican activists, on the other hand, saw the ruling as a blow to the security of elections, as it gives state and federal courts the authority to intervene in how elections are conducted.
The decision did leave some questions unanswered, however, according to law professor Derek Mueller of the University of Iowa College of Law.
“It is clear that state courts and state constitutions have a role to play in limiting how state legislatures go about the job of setting the rules for federal elections. But the Court’s opinion expressly leaves open the unanswered questions of when state courts go too far beyond ‘the ordinary bounds of judicial review such that they arrogate to themselves the power vested in state legislatures,'” Mueller said.
Regardless, the SCOTUS decision has been viewed as a major win for those seeking to ensure fair and secure elections free from partisan gerrymandering.
“The Court’s opinion serves as a warning to partisan activists inclined to use lawsuits as an effort to circumvent applicable election laws or rewrite districts,” said Jonathan Adler, law professor at Case Western Reserve University.
Tuesday‘s ruling won‘t be the last word on the subject, though. How state courts balance their authority with that of state legislatures will likely remain an open question heading into the 2024 election and beyond.