On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to dismiss a congressional map in North Carolina created by Republicans and disapproved of the idea of an “independent legislature theory.” GOP lawyers had proposed this theory, which suggests that state and federal courts should not be able to review state decisions in redistricting since state legislatures are given the authority to choose the “times, places, and manner” of federal elections under Article I, Section 4.
The Elections Clause doesn’t protect state legislatures from state judicial review, as stated in the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts. There was a dispute when the North Carolina Supreme Court invalidated the congressional map made by the legislature and favored Republican candidates. The state’s top legislative Republicans appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the reasoning behind the initial decision was overturned, the end result remained the same since the party was able to gain control of the state’s high court.
The Supreme Court’s decision now grants federal courts the authority to assess state supreme court decisions regarding congressional maps’ compliance with state election laws. This means that federal courts can potentially overturn state courts’ judgments on whether a map violates federal and state laws.
Chief Justice Roberts was joined by Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and the three justices appointed by Democrats to form the 6-3 majority. The majority argued that the Supreme Court possessed jurisdiction over the case, state constitutions governed the redistricting power of the legislature, and state and federal courts could review the legality of state legislative maps based on state and federal laws.
Roberts contended that the court had the authority to hear the case because the GOP petitioners could only find relief if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state supreme court’s initial decision, which was partially overturned after Republicans assumed control of the High Court in North Carolina. He also referred to the historical practice of judicial review, predating the landmark Marbury v. Madison case, to support the court’s role. Roberts concluded that while state courts retained the authority to apply state constitutional restrictions when legislatures acted under the power conferred by the Elections Clause, federal courts must not neglect their duty to exercise judicial review.
Justice Kavanaugh wrote a separate opinion concurring with the majority, emphasizing the need to limit federal courts’ jurisdiction in reviewing state redistricting cases. He argued that the court did not establish a standard for such review and asserted that allowing federal courts this jurisdiction did not disrespect state courts but rather safeguarded state legislatures.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the court should not have agreed to hear the case and that granting federal judges authority over state election law controversies would burden federal court dockets. Moreover, he highlighted the potential for “politically charged controversies” to be hastily resolved by federal courts, potentially determining the winners of federal elections.
Tim Moore, the lead petitioner and Speaker of the North Carolina House issued a statement in response to the decision, stating that the question of the role of state courts in congressional redistricting needed resolution, which the ruling accomplished. He expressed pride in pursuing the case to the nation’s highest court and welcomed the North Carolina Supreme Court’s affirmation of the state constitutional authority of N.C. General Assembly. Moore pledged to continue with the redistricting process later in the year.
Rick Pildes, a law professor at New York University, commented on the ruling, stating that although the court provided some clarity on the issue of the independent state legislature, it left a vague standard for federal courts to apply when determining whether they should review the legality of state legislatures’ maps under state law. Pildes suggested that the extent to which a court may go “too far” would likely be litigated during the 2024 elections.