The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a legal theory that would have radically reshaped how federal elections are conducted by giving state legislatures largely unchecked power to set all sorts of rules for federal elections and to draw congressional maps warped by partisan gerrymandering.
The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writing the majority opinion. The Constitution, he said, “does not exempt state legislatures from the ordinary constraints imposed by state law.”
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch dissented.
The case concerned the “independent state legislature” theory. The doctrine is based on a 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.”
Proponents of the strongest form of the theory say this means that no other organs of state government — not courts, not governors, not election administrators, not independent commissions — can alter a legislature’s actions on federal elections.
The case, Moore v. Harper, No. 21-1271, concerned a voting map drawn by the North Carolina Legislature that was initially rejected as a partisan gerrymander by the state’s Supreme Court. Experts said the map was likely to yield a congressional delegation made up of 10 Republicans and four Democrats.
The state court rejected the argument that it was not entitled to review the actions of the state’s Legislature, saying that adopting the independent state legislature theory would be “repugnant to the sovereignty of states, the authority of state constitutions and the independence of state courts, and would produce absurd and dangerous consequences.”
Republicans seeking to restore the legislative map last year asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, arguing in an emergency application that the state court had been powerless to act.
The justices rejected the request for immediate intervention, and the election in November was conducted under a map drawn by experts appointed by a state court. That resulted in a 14-member congressional delegation that was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, roughly mirroring the state’s partisan divisions.
The Republican lawmakers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the state court was not entitled to second-guess the Legislature. When the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in December, the justices seemed divided, if not fractured, over the limits of the theory.
The composition of the North Carolina Supreme Court changed after elections in November, favoring Republicans by a 5-to-2 margin. In what a dissenting justice called a “shameful manipulation of fundamental principles of our democracy and the rule of law,” the new majority reversed course, saying the Legislature was free to draw gerrymandered voting districts as it saw fit.
Many observers had expected the U.S. Supreme Court to dismiss the case in light of that development. But Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the Supreme Court retained jurisdiction over the case.
When the court closed the doors of federal courts to claims of partisan gerrymandering in Rucho v. Common Cause in 2019, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the five most conservative members of the court, said state courts could continue to hear such cases — including in the context of congressional redistricting.
“Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering,” he wrote. “Nor does our conclusion condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void. The states, for example, are actively addressing the issue on a number of fronts.” Seeming to anticipate and reject the independent state legislature theory, he wrote that “provisions in state statutes and state constitutions can provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply.”
In 2015, in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the court ruled that Arizona’s voters were entitled to try to make the process of drawing congressional district lines less partisan by creating an independent redistricting commission despite the reference to “legislature” in the Elections Clause.
“Nothing in that clause instructs, nor has this court ever held, that a state legislature may prescribe regulations on the time, place and manner of holding federal elections in defiance of provisions of the state’s constitution,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020, wrote in the majority opinion of the 5-to-4 decision.