The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state courts can overrule state legislatures when it comes to federal elections, the Brown Political Review reported. The court ruled 6-3 in Moore v. Harper, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the opinion.
The case was brought after the North Carolina Supreme Court decided in 2022 to nix a congressional map drawn by the state legislature. It was based on the 2020 census and determined by the GOP majority, as is the privilege following elections.
At the time, the court called it "an egregious and intentional partisan gerrymander." However, the state's supreme court eventually overturned that objection to the map in its April 28 decision.
Despite the issue appearing to be moot under those conditions, the matter did make its way to the nation's highest court as the question of the role of state legislatures is sure to come up again. Monday's decision put to rest whether the "independent state legislature theory" is valid for election law.
This legal theory posited that legislatures could control election procedures without input from the state's court system. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed on the basis that the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause "does not vest exclusive and independent authority in state legislatures to set the rules regarding federal elections."
Left-leaning Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Ketani Brown Jackson, and right-leaning Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney joined Roberts in siding with the state courts. "State courts retain the authority to apply state constitutional restraints when legislatures act under the power conferred upon them by the Elections Clause," the chief justice wrote.
"But federal courts must not abandon their own duty to exercise 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," he added.
Redistricting is an important function of the state legislature in many states and comes with political perks. It can help tip the balance to favor the party that draws the map, the New York Times reported.
Drawing lines to favor one party over another can have an impact on the balance of the U.S. House of Representatives in redistricting. However, the court's right to throw out a legally drawn map in favor of its own puts the matter into the hands of judges instead of lawmakers, which isn't necessarily better.
Still, besides the left-versus-right issues, some object to the way maps are drawn based on race. According to the Voting Act Rights of 1965, it is already illegal to gerrymander based on racial demographics.
At the time it was passed, the Justice Department was in charge of overseeing changes to maps or voting laws in historically racist states. This was a necessary and positive move and resulted in 250,000 new registered black voters by the end of the first year in effect.
In cases where it's a clear racial divide or unfair, perhaps the courts having a say in the maps is warranted. Earlier this month, a separate Supreme Court decision found that Alabama’s map that split a heavily black district was unconstitutional, ABC News reported.
Roberts wrote the opinion in that case and concluded it was unfair, considering it took representation away from the 25% of the population that identified as black. However, granting courts broad powers to override mandates that are the purview of elected officials can be dangerous.
America has three distinct branches of government for the purpose of proper checks and balances. Just as lawmakers shouldn't have outsized power to make laws that go against the Constitution, neither should the courts be able to determine the electoral destiny of a given state.