Supreme Court Rejects Legal Theory That Would Eviscerate Voting Rights – For Now

Congressional district maps drawn by state courts will remain in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected emergency applications filed by Republicans in North Carolina and Pennsylvania asking the court to strike down congressional district maps approved by courts in both states.

Republicans in North Carolina had asked the court to strike down a map drawn by state courts after finding that the original map passed by the Republican legislature was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander under the state constitution. In Pennsylvania, Republicans wanted to strike down a state court-drawn map implemented after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the map passed by the Republican-majority legislature.

In doing so, the Supreme Court refused to accept a radical legal theory known as the independent state legislature doctrine that could have upended redistricting and voting rights across the country.

Four conservative justices ― Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh ― who appeared open to adopting this doctrine in two cases in 2020, however, remain open to it and anticipate a case resolving the issue at some point in the near future.

At issue is whether state courts can continue to play any role in reviewing whether district maps or election laws passed by state legislatures are unlawful under their state constitutions. Supporters of the independent state legislature doctrine believe that the elections clause in the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures the sole authority to set the “time, place, and manner” of elections.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected emergency appeals to overturn court-drawn congressional district maps in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected emergency appeals to overturn court-drawn congressional district maps in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Voting rights and fair districts would be greatly at risk if state legislatures are no longer bound by their state constitutions in setting election laws or drawing district maps.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 2019 Rucho v. Common Cause case that federal courts should not intervene in the congressional redistricting process to police partisan gerrymandering.

Instead, “provisions in state statutes and state constitutions can provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the Rucho decision.

Though the court did not gut its decision in Rucho by cutting state courts out of the redistricting process, the fact that four conservative justices might want to do so presents an ongoing danger to voting rights.

“The issue is almost certain to keep arising until the Court definitively resolves it,” Kavanaugh wrote in a concurrence to the major decision declining to intervene in the North Carolina case.

“We will have to resolve this question sooner or later, and the sooner we do so, the better,” Alito wrote in a dissent joined by Thomas and Gorsuch.

The court rejected the application from North Carolina while stating that the Pennsylvania case was before a three-judge panel and could still come before them in the future.

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