In a significant ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an argument by North Carolina Republicans that state legislatures should have exclusive authority to set rules for federal elections, free from judicial intervention. The 6-3 decision has implications for the independent state legislature doctrine, a concept that Republicans argue gives state legislatures the sole power to regulate federal elections within their states.
The doctrine is rooted in two clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The Elections Clause in Article 1 states, “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” The Presidential Electors Clause in Article 2 gives each state the power to appoint presidential electors “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct.”
Democrats, however, view this doctrine as a fringe conservative legal theory that could potentially undermine voting rights, enable extreme partisan gerrymandering, and create chaos in election administration.
The Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Moore v. Harper, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, found that the Elections Clause does not grant state legislatures exclusive authority to set rules for federal elections. The opinion was joined by conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, as well as liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
In his opinion, Roberts wrote, “State courts retain the authority to apply state constitutional restraints when legislatures act under the power conferred upon them by the Elections Clause.” He added, “But federal courts must not abandon their own duty to exercise judicial review.”
The case arose after North Carolina Republicans argued before the Supreme Court in December 2022 that the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures an exclusive role in setting rules for presidential and congressional elections, without judicial interference.
The ruling comes as the Supreme Court of North Carolina, now with a Republican majority, decided to rehear the underlying case, Harper v. Hall, and reversed its previous ruling. The state court held that the General Assembly, not judges, has sole authority over the redistricting process.
Despite the state court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court was urged by Moore’s side to proceed and issue an opinion, while the Biden administration suggested the case be dismissed as moot. The Supreme Court’s decision to reject the independent state legislature doctrine marks a significant development in the ongoing debate over election rules and regulations.