SCOTUS Rules Against GOP State Legislature In Key Election Law Case
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 26: A Fair Maps Rally was held in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, March 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. The rally coincides with the U.S. Supreme Court hearings in landmark redistricting cases out of North Carolina and Maryland. The activists sent the message the the Court should declare gerrymandering unconstitutional now.
Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday against a Republican-drawn congressional map in North Carolina, rebuking “independent legislature theory.”

The theory proposed by the GOP lawyers believes that because Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution gives state legislatures the power to determine the “times, places and manner” of federal elections, state and federal courts have no business reviewing state decisions in redistricting. 

“The Elections Clause does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. 

The controversy was spurred when the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s congressional map, which favored Republican candidates. However, after the state’s top legislative Republicans appealed to SCOTUS, the party gained control of the state’s high court, which subsequently overruled the reasoning — but not the result — of the original decision. 

The decision gives power to federal courts to review state supreme court decisions regarding congressional maps’ compliance with state election laws. This means that federal courts could overrule state courts in deciding whether a map violates state law, not just federal law. 

Roberts was joined by Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and the three Democrat-appointed justices to form the 6-3 majority. The majority argued that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction over the case, state constitutions govern the legislature’s redistricting power, and state and federal courts can review the legality of state legislatures’ maps under state and federal laws.

Roberts argued that the Court had authority to hear the case because the only path for the GOP petitioners to be relieved is if SCOTUS overturned the state supreme court’s first decision on the matter, which was only partially overturned after Republicans took over the Tar Heel State’s high court. 

The Chief Justice also turned to the practice of judicial review before Marbury v. Madison solidified the practice in SCOTUS. “State cases, debates at the Convention, and writings de- fending the Constitution all advanced the concept of judicial review,” he wrote. “The idea that courts may review legislative action was so “long and well established” by … Marbury in 1803 that Chief Justice Marshall referred to judicial review as ‘one of the fundamental principles of our society.’” 


“State courts retain the authority to apply state constitutional restraints when legislatures act under the power conferred upon them by the Elections Clause. But federal courts must not abandon their own duty to exercise judicial review,” Roberts concluded.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a concurrence where he emphasized that federal courts should be limited in their jurisdiction to review state redistricting cases, pointing out the Court does not adopt a standard. He also argued that allowing federal courts this jurisdiction is not disrespect to state courts but a protection for state legislatures.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the Court should not have even heard the case and that granting federal judges authority over controversies of state election law would “swell federal court dockets.” 

More consequentially, he noted that “politically charged controversies” will arise “haphazardly” before federal courts, with the winners of federal elections possibly being decided by a quick judgment of a federal court. 

Lead petitioner and Speaker of the North Carolina House Tim Moore released a statement regarding the decision:

“Ultimately, the question of the role of state courts in congressional redistricting needed to be settled and this decision has done just that. I am proud of the work we did to pursue this case to the nation’s highest court,” Moore said. “Fortunately the current Supreme Court of North Carolina has rectified bad precedent from the previous majority, reaffirming the state constitutional authority of the NC General Assembly. We will continue to move forward with the redistricting process later this year.”

Rick Pildes, a law professor at New York University, said that “while the Court provided some clarity about the independent state legislature issue,” it left a “vague standard” for federal courts to apply when determining whether they should review state legislatures’ maps legality under state law. Pildes states that we don’t know when a court goes “too far” and that it will likely be litigated amid the 2024 elections.

Zach Jewell and Nathan Gay contributed to this report.

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