WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court agreed on Thursday to hear a case from North Carolina Republicans that aims to strip state courts of their authority over elections and return power to state legislatures.
A redistricting fight from the Tarheel State is at the heart of the litigation, with lawmakers fighting to reinstate a map that the state Supreme Court threw out. Republican lawmakers advanced their case by way of the independent state legislature doctrine, a controversial rule that says courts cannot intervene in election matters because the legislature has supremacy in the area and would strip state courts of their ability to review redistricting matters.
Experts warn the doctrine could be used by partisan legislatures to decide elections. While the theory dates back to Bush v. Gore, it really picked up steam in challenges to the 2020 election.
North Carolina’s new congressional map was challenged shortly after it was enacted in November 2021. A three-judge panel ruled in the lawmakers' favor, but the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the decision in February. It called the new congressional map “unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt” under four different clauses of the North Carolina Constitution.
This case first appeared on the court’s shadow docket in February when Republicans from North Carolina’s General Assembly asked the justices to block the state court’s ruling. Though the court declined to intervene, three of the court’s conservative justices — Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch — objected at the time.
“This case presents an exceptionally important and recurring question of constitutional law, namely, the extent of a state court’s authority to reject rules adopted by a state legislature for use in conducting federal elections,” Alito wrote in a March dissent when the court declined to hear the case. “There can be no doubt that this question is of great national importance.”
Two different areas of the Constitution — the Elections Clause and the Presidential Electors Clause — are the source of the theory that the lawmakers seek to advance. These clauses give lawmakers power over procedural mechanics within the electoral process.
In his dissent — which Thomas and Gorsuch joined — Alito embraced arguments made by the assembly, which argues that the Elections Clause gives state legislatures supreme power over federal elections.
“Both sides advance serious arguments, but based on the briefing we have received, my judgment is that the applicants’ argument is stronger,” Alito wrote. “The question presented is one of federal not state law because the state legislature, in promulgating rules for congressional elections, acts pursuant to a constitutional mandate under the Elections Clause.”