The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state courts can act as a check on their legislatures in redistricting and other issues affecting federal elections, rejecting arguments by North Carolina Republicans that could have transformed contests for Congress and President.
The justices by a 6-3 vote upheld a decision by North Carolina’s top court that struck down a congressional districting plan as excessively partisan under state law.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court that “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.”
The high court did, though, suggest there could be limits on state court efforts to police elections for Congress and President.
The practical effect of the decision is minimal in that the North Carolina Supreme Court, under a new Republican majority, already has undone its redistricting ruling.
Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch would have dismissed the case because of the intervening North Carolina court action.
Another redistricting case from Ohio is pending, if the justices want to say more about the issue before next year’s elections.
Derek Muller, a University of Iowa law professor and elections expert, said Tuesday’s decision leaves some room to challenge state court rulings on federal election issues. “In other words, the door is not closed on these challenges, and open questions remain in the 2024 election and beyond. But these are likely to be rare cases. The vast majority of state court decisions that could affect federal elections will likely continue without any change,” Muller said.
The North Carolina case attracted outsized attention because four conservative justices had suggested that the Supreme Court should rein in state courts in their oversight of elections for president and Congress.
Opponents of the idea, known as the independent legislature theory, had argued that the effects of a robust ruling for North Carolina Republicans could be much broader than just redistricting and exacerbate political polarization.
Potentially at stake were more than 170 state constitutional provisions, over 650 state laws delegating authority to make election policies to state and local officials, and thousands of regulations down to the location of polling places, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
The justices heard arguments in December in an appeal by the state’s Republican leaders in the legislature. Their efforts to draw congressional districts heavily in their favor were blocked by a Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court because the GOP map violated the state constitution.
A court-drawn map produced seven seats for each party in last year’s midterm elections in highly competitive North Carolina.
The question for the justices was whether the U.S. Constitution’s provision giving state legislatures the power to make the rules about the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections cuts state courts out of the process.