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Supreme Court debates case on state legislatures' power over federal elections

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether state legislatures should have the unilateral power to determine federal election rules through gerrymandering and other controversial tactics. File Photo by Jemal Countess/UPI
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether state legislatures should have the unilateral power to determine federal election rules through gerrymandering and other controversial tactics. File Photo by Jemal Countess/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 7 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether state legislatures should have the unilateral power to determine election rules through gerrymandering and other controversial tactics.

The eventual ruling by the high court could fundamentally reshape how federal elections are conducted in the future.

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The legal case, Moore vs. Harper, stems from a ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court in February that found Republicans violated the state constitution by redrawing political maps that created as many as 11 majority Republican districts compared to just three for Democrats.

The crux of the case centers around the legal theory known as the "Independent State Legislature Doctrine." The high court jostled with this polarizing theory in oral arguments for about three hours on Wednesday.

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Conservatives have a 6-3 majority on the court, and by the end of the session it was evident the justices were divided.

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"The text of the Constitution assigns to state legislatures alone the authority to regulate the times, places and manner of congressional elections -- including the authority to draw congressional districts," attorneys for the North Carolina Republicans wrote in a brief to the court.

"That textual choice has an obvious and unavoidable consequence: The power to regulate federal elections lies with state legislatures exclusively."

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Three of the conservative justices, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have shown support for the theory in the past. The other three conservative justices, John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney-Barrett, have not been as clearly convinced.

As for liberal justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, the consensus is that a ruling in favor of North Carolina's Republican lawmakers could upend the system of checks and balances in place to maintain free and fair elections.

"What might strike a person is that this is a proposal that gets rid of the normal checks and balances on the way big governmental decisions are made in this country," Kagan said. "You might think it gets rid of all those checks and balances at exactly the time when they are needed most."

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The ultimate decision the Supreme Court comes to will affect more than gerrymandering, which was at the center of why the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the Republican-drawn map. It would also impact state lawmakers' ability to change early and mail-in voting rules, despite coming into conflict with their own state constitutions.

In its February ruling, the North Carolina Supreme Court called the theory "repugnant to the sovereignty of states, the authority of state constitutions and the independence of state courts and would produce absurd and dangerous consequences."

But North Carolina Republicans took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the legislative map should be restored because state courts lacked the constitutional authority to overturn legislative actions on elections.

The body of nine justices initially turned down a request for immediate intervention in March, and North Carolina officials hired experts to draw up a new electoral map for the November midterms that was evenly split between both parties.

Republicans and Democrats each won seven congressional seats in the midterm election last month.

Although the nation's highest court has never fully embraced the "Independent State Legislature" theory, four of the court's six conservative justices have written previous opinions that seem to give it some merit.

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The doctrine is based on a literal reading of the Elections Clause of the Constitution, which states: "The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof."

Constitutional hard-liners have interpreted the phrase to mean that state legislatures hold singular and final authority over federal election results.

Proponents of this theory also argue that state supreme courts cannot subject election laws to state constitutions, and also believe a governor's veto power should be suspended on all bills dealing with federal elections.

The principle goes further in tying the hands of election administrators, who would not be able to issue special or emergency regulations that limit the reach of strict new election laws. It would also become illegal for voters to form independent commissions to address redistricting.

Despite some of the more controversial aspects of the theory, three Supreme Court justices said they favored granting the emergency appeal that was ultimately turned down last March before the court agreed in June to take up the case.

"This case presents an exceptionally important and recurring question of constitutional law," Alito wrote in an opinion joined by Thomas and Gorsuch.

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Kavanaugh agreed, saying: "Namely the extent of a state court's authority to reject rules adopted by a state legislature for use in conducting federal elections. The issue is almost certain to keep arising until the court definitively resolves it."

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