When the conservative North Carolina Supreme Court threw out the congressional maps drawn by its Democratic predecessors back in April, it was assumed by many observers the U.S. Supreme Court would leave the case alone because it had already been decided.
Those assumptions were incorrect.
In a 6-3 decision on Tuesday in Moore v. Harper, the justices rejected state Republicans’ claims they could ignore their own state constitutions while making election laws.
Republicans in the General Assembly were using a controversial fringe legal concept, known as “independent state legislature” theory. It states the Elections Clause in the U.S. Constitution allows legislators the power to govern federal elections without oversight from courts or governors.
Election and democracy experts — such as Dr. Nadine Gibson of UNCW — warned the theory, if adopted in its most extreme application, could have a dramatic impact on how elections are run and voting rules are written, not just in North Carolina but the rest of the nation.
“This ruling does, however, mean that in the future, the Court can step in if we see any changes in the controlling party (i.e., Republican General Assembly and Democratic Supreme Court or Democratic General Assembly and Republican Supreme Court), then we might see this ruling come into play,” Gibson wrote to Port City Daily Tuesday.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts indicated in the ruling the Elections Clause “does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review.”
“In interpreting state law in this area, state courts may not so exceed the bounds of ordinary judicial review as to unconstitutionally intrude upon the role specifically reserved to state legislatures by Article I, Section 4, of the Federal Constitution,” Roberts wrote.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the case should have never been decided by the high court, since the N.C. Supreme Court already made a determination.
“This is a straightforward case of mootness,” Thomas wrote. “The federal defense no longer makes any difference to this case — whether we agree with the defense, disagree with it or say nothing at all, the final judgment in this litigation will be exactly the same.”
Nevertheless, North Carolina Democrats received the news as anything but a case of mootness.
“This broadest of theories backed by the far right is one NC Republicans have been pushing for the past decade as it leaves their power unchecked in gerrymandering districts and undermines our democracy,” a statement from the North Carolina Democratic Party reads.
Democratic Governor Roy Cooper saw the high court’s ruling as a good decision that ensures checks and balances. Yet, in a statement, Cooper also offered caution.
“But Republican legislators in North Carolina and across the country remain a very real threat to democracy as they continue to pass laws to manipulate elections for partisan gain by interfering with the freedom to vote,” Cooper said.
The GOP-led General Assembly recently adopted the voter ID law, and proposed restrictions in a couple of bills that tackle same-day registration and changing the appointment process for state and local boards of elections.
The last time Republicans drew the maps in 2021, it came with a GOP-favored 10-4 split.
Maps are changed every 10 years due to population shifts. A 14th congressional seat in North Carolina was picked up in the 2020 Census, due to the state adding more than 900,000 people over the last decade.
During the 2022 midterm elections, Democratic-leaning state court judges invalidated the Republican-drawn maps in Harper v. Hall.
The change originated when the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, on behalf of a group of voters, filed a lawsuit April 2021. The complaint claimed the gerrymander of seats violated the North Carolina and U.S. Constitutions because the maps weakened minority voting power and benefited white voters and Republicans.
In December 2021, North Carolina’s state court ordered the primaries be delayed by two months, while awaiting a Harper v. Hall decision, and offered the chance for new maps to be drawn by the General Assembly. The revisions were still deemed unacceptable.
Two months later, in a 4-3 decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court threw out the General Assembly’s 10-4 map. The state court drew its own map, a 7-7 split among Democrats and Republicans, for the 2022 elections.
The U.S. Supreme Court took on the case in June 2022 after the General Assembly appealed the state court’s ruling striking down the gerrymandered districts.
As of April this year, the ruling was overturned after conservative justices were elected in North Carolina’s midterms to secure the majority.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling rejects the “independent state legislature” theory, maps still have to be redrawn ahead of the 2024 election. State law dictates interim maps can be implemented during one election cycle.
Republicans have the majority of both chambers currently, meaning new maps will likely lean conservative.
PCD reached out to Rep. David Rouzer and local members of the General Assembly for comment. None responded by press.
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