The Supreme Court of the United States issued a surprising decision on June 27.
In a 6-3 decision in the case of Moore v. Harper, the court affirmed the longstanding principle of judicial review and rejected a limitless application of the independent legislature theory. The controversial case centers around the redrawing of congressional districts in North Carolina.
The case emerged following the 2020 federal census, revealing that the population of North Carolina had increased substantially and granting the state a new seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. This addition called for the redrawing of congressional districts.
In November 2021, multiple lawsuits were filed against the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly, with accusations of both political and racial gerrymandering regarding the redistricting maps it was proposing.
In January 2022, the Wake County Superior Court upheld the maps, ruling that the plaintiffs did not produce sufficient evidence to prove a charge of racial gerrymandering.
Most significantly, the court argued that it was inappropriate for the judicial branch to interfere in the process, stating: “Were we as a court to insert ourselves in the manner requested, we would be usurping the political power and prerogatives of an equal branch of government.”
An appeal was filed, and ultimately the Democrat-controlled North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the maps unconstitutional in a 4-3 decision in February 2022.
In response, the state’s legislative leaders unsuccessfully attempted to draw new maps in compliance with the court’s orders. A team of outside experts were assigned to create a new map, which was finally accepted by the court on February 24, 2022.
On February 25, 2022, the General Assembly attempted to stay the implementation of the new maps pending an appeal to the Supreme Court.
SCOTUS denied the request on March 7, 2022, in a 5-4 ruling. However, on June 30, 2022, the court agreed to review the judicial process of the case, and finally heard oral arguments on December 7, 2022.
Several additional events took place in the months following, further complicating the matter, but the central issue in this case is the independent state legislature theory.
This concept was the basis for North Carolina Republicans’ defense of its redistricting maps throughout court proceedings. They asserted that the U.S. Constitution gives authority to regulate federal elections to duly elected state lawmakers without any checks and balances from the judicial or executive branches.
The broadest interpretation of this theory is that state lawmakers have full control over everything related to federal elections. This includes the redrawing of congressional districts.
SCOTUS has historically rejected the broadest interpretations of this theory, as far back as Smiley v. Holm (1932), and this week’s SCOTUS opinion reaffirms that the independent legislature theory has limits.
Chief Justice John Roberts concluded: “The Election Clause does not vest exclusive and independent authority in state legislatures to set the rule regarding federal elections.” In other words, judicial review still applies.
The impact of Moore v. Harper on gerrymandering in North Carolina is still unclear, as SCOTUS affirmed that the state supreme court had a right to rule on the matter, so we should expect additional judication.
Nonetheless, the ruling is significant as it is a reminder that since Marbury v. Madison (1803), judicial review of congressional or executive branch decisions has been a hallmark of our constitutional system.
Chief Justice John Marshall in the Madison ruling called it one of our “fundamental principles,” which can be documented as far back as the Federalist papers (Federalist No. 78).
The principle of judicial review has become a defining characteristic of our governmental system and culture. It serves as a check to ensure that those in power do not push out dissenting voices or minority groups, and that we all play by the same rules.
Therefore, this week’s SCOTUS opinion solidifies the judicial branch’s authority to protect the fairness of our electoral system, ensuring that the constitution and what remains in effect from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are applied to guarantee free and fair elections without discrimination and manipulation.
Yes, we need to think long and hard about how we elect our officials. But more importantly, we need to join SCOTUS in a bipartisan effort to promote an electoral system that ensures that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.