Tuesday, June 27, 2023
The Supreme Court today flatly and unequivocally rejected a strong version of the independent state legislature theory (ISL)--the theory that state legislatures have plenary authority over rules for federal elections in their states. But it left open federal judicial review of state-court decisions on state election laws that are out of line (to one degree or another, the Court didn't specify) with state law.
ISL is the theory that a state legislature--and a state legislature alone--can set state election law for federal elections. It's based on a literal reading of the U.S. Constitution's Election Clause, which says "the Legislature" of each state shall prescribe "[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives . . . ." According to ISL, "the Legislature" means the state legislature alone, and not the broader lawmaking authority of the state under the state constitution (which includes state-court judicial review of state legislative acts, the governor's signature or veto, etc.). The Constitution's Electors Clause reads similarly, and similarly grants authority to "the Legislature" to direct the process for the appointment of the state's electors in a presidential election.
The ruling means that state courts can continue to rule state election laws unconstitutional under the state constitution, and that they can continue to interpret state election laws in light of their own state law. In other words, state courts continue to have the power of judicial review in the area of state election law. But at the same time, state court review itself is subject to federal court review if the state court goes too far out of line. (Again, how far we do not know.)
It's not clear how this'll all play out. But there are some certainties. For one, the Court flatly rejected the strong version of ISL--that state legislatures have plenary power to set state election law for federal elections, without review by state courts and not subject to state constitutional requirements. For another, to the extent that former President Trump's team relied on the strong version ISL to overturn the electoral results in several states in the 2020 presidential election (it was central to that effort), and to the extent that the Court's approach to ISL is the same under the Elections Clause and the Electors Clause (they appear to be exactly the same), the Court closed the door to these kinds of shenanigans in future presidential elections. In particular, today's ruling seems to flatly foreclose any effort by a state legislature to circumvent existing state law and state-court rulings and unilaterally appoint electors to whomever it wishes.
And just to put an exclamation point behind all of that, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the Court's opinion (joined by Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Jackson). That's significant, because Chief Justice Roberts dissented in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Court's latest foray into the Elections Clause, upholding Arizona's independent redistricting commission against an ISL-type challenge. Chief Justice Roberts argued that the Court got it wrong, with a full-throated defense of ISL.
Less clear, however, is how the Supreme Court may intervene in future state-court cases involving more run-of-the-mill (but nevertheless hugely important) state election-law issues--what standard it'll use to assess those rulings, how much deference the Court will give to state courts to interpret their own state laws and state constitutions, and how the Court is likely to rule in those cases.
The case, Moore v. Harper, arose when the North Carolina legislature gerrymandered its congressional districts. Plaintiffs sued in state court, arguing that the gerrymander violated the state constitution. (They didn't sue in federal court or raise a federal claim, because the Supreme Court ruled in Rucho v. Common Cause that partisan gerrymandering claims under the federal Constitution are nonjusticiable "political questions.") The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs, ruled the congressional map unconstitutional under the state constitution, and remanded the case to the state trial court to oversee the drawing of a new map.
North Carolina legislative leaders sought Supreme Court review, arguing that the state supreme court violated the federal Constitution's Elections Clause by overturning the state legislature's election law (the congressional districting map). After the Court agreed to hear the case, however, the state supreme court (after a judicial election) reversed course and ruled that partisan gerrymandering isn't justiciable under the state constitution. The court withdrew and "overruled" its earlier decisions.
After that latest move by the state supreme court, the case raised two issues at the U.S. Supreme Court: (1) Is the case moot in light of the state supreme court's latest ruling, and (2) does the state supreme court's first ruling (the one overturning the legislature's partisan gerrymander under the state constitution) violate the federal Elections Clause.
As to mootness, the Court held that the case still presented a live controversy, because the state supreme court's most recent ruling didn't change that court's first judgment that halted the state's use of its gerrymandered map. (It only ruled that the question was nonjusticiable.) Moreover, the Court said that federal law authorized it to hear the case. "The record shows that Harper I finally decided the Elections Clause question, the judgment in that case continues to bind the parties before us, and the 2021 congressional maps would again take effect in North Carolina were we to reverse. Accordingly, we have jurisdiction under both Article III and [28 U.S.C. Sec. 1257(a)]."
As to the merits, the Court held that the idea that state courts can review state legislative acts under the state constitution and state laws was hard-wired into our federal constitutional system even before the framing, that state-court judicial review is therefore part of the state's lawmaking authority, and that state-court judicial review is part of "the Legislature" under the Election Clause. The Court said that Court precedent supported this result.
The Court went on to say that the Supreme Court could still review those state-court rulings that are out of line with the federal Constitution or state law (including the state constitution). But it didn't provide a standard or rule for this kind of review, instead leaving it open for future cases.
Justice Kavanaugh concurred, noting that the Court didn't set a standard, but arguing for the standard that Chief Justice Rehnquist pushed in Bush v. Gore: "whether the state court 'impermissibly distorted' state law 'beyond what a fair reading required.'"
Justice Thomas dissented on mootness (joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch) and on the merits (joined only by Justice Gorsuch). He also noted the Court's lack of standard for future cases, saying that he "would hesitate long before committing the Federal Judiciary to this uncertain path," especially in "an advisory opinion, in a moot case . . . ."