By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Thursday to hear a Republican-backed appeal that could give state legislatures significantly more power over federal elections by limiting the ability of state courts to review their actions, taking on a North Carolina case that could have broad implications for the 2024 election and beyond.
Judges have heard an appeal from Republican state lawmakers against a February decision by North Carolina‘s highest court to release a map delineating the 14 U.S. House of Representatives districts approved the year last by the Republican-controlled state legislature.
The North Carolina Supreme Court determined that district boundaries were drawn by the legislature in a way that increased Republicans’ electoral chances at the expense of Democrats. He rejected Republican arguments to protect maps drawn by the legislature from legal attack in state courts.
North Carolina House Speaker Timothy Moore, a Republican, welcomed the High Court’s decision to hear the appeal.
“This case is not only critical to the integrity of elections in North Carolina, but has implications for election security nationwide,” Moore said.
Suffrage advocates disagreed.
“In a sweeping power grab, self-serving politicians want to challenge our state’s highest court and impose illegal electoral districts on the people of North Carolina,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause, an advocacy group of voting rights who is one of the plaintiffs. challenge the map of the legislator.
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Republican request to suspend rulings from lower courts that adopted the court-drawn map, a move seen as bolstering Democratic hopes of retaining their narrow House majority in the U.S. November midterm elections. Conservative justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch disagreed with the decision.
Republican lawmakers said the state court impermissibly imposed its own political determination on how much partisanship can go into crafting congressional lines. They acknowledged the case would have an impact beyond the redistricting, spanning “the entire waterfront of voting issues, from absentee ballot deadlines to witness requirements, from voter identification to voting at the edge of the street”.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case in its next term, which begins in October, with a decision expected by June 2023. The decision is not expected to come before the November election, but could apply to 2024 elections, including the presidential race.
Two groups of plaintiffs, including Democratic voters and an environmental group, sued after the North Carolina Legislature passed its version of the Congressional map last November. The plaintiffs argued that the map violated provisions of the North Carolina state constitution regarding free elections and freedom of assembly, among other things.
The North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the map on February 4, finding that the way the districts were designed was intentionally biased against Democrats, diluting their “fundamental right to equal voting power.”
On Feb. 23, a lower state court rejected a redrawn map submitted by the legislature and instead adopted a new map drawn by a bipartisan panel of experts. According to some redistricting analysts, the new map includes seven Republican districts likely to be won by Republicans, six likely to be won by Democrats and one competitive seat.
MANY LEGAL BATTLES
The dispute is one of several legal battles in the United States over the composition of electoral districts, which are redrawn every decade to reflect demographic changes measured in a national census, last taken in 2020. In most States, this redistricting is carried out by the party. in power, which can lead to manipulation of the map for partisan purposes.
In 2019, the Supreme Court barred federal judges from curbing this practice, called partisan gerrymandering. Critics have said that such gerrymandering distorts democracy.
The North Carolina Republicans’ defense of the legislature’s map hinges on a controversial legal theory called the “independent state legislature doctrine” that is gaining traction in conservative legal circles and, if accepted, would greatly increase politicians’ control over how elections are conducted.
According to this doctrine, the United States Constitution gives legislatures, not state courts or other entities, authority over election rules, including the drawing of electoral districts.
The doctrine is based in part on the language of the Constitution stating that “the times, places, and manner” of federal elections “shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the Republican lawmakers denounced “the usurpation of this authority by the State Supreme Court.”
The state Department of Justice said in a legal filing that, contrary to claims by Republican lawmakers, North Carolina state law specifically allows state courts to review redistricting efforts.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)