U.S. Supreme Court affirms state court authority to overturn congressional district boundaries in Moore v. Harper

On June 27, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Moore v. Harper that the North Carolina Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning the state’s congressional district boundaries did not conflict with the Elections Clause in the U.S. Constitution. Although the state supreme court subsequently reversed its decision, SCOTUS upheld the state court’s authority to decide whether the district boundaries complied with North Carolina’s Constitution.

In a 6-3 decision, the court also ruled that it had jurisdiction to rule in the case, regardless of the state court’s subsequent reversal, saying, “This Court has jurisdiction to review the judgment of the North Carolina Supreme Court in Harper I that adjudicated the Federal Elections Clause issue.”

The case concerned whether state legislatures alone are empowered to regulate federal elections without oversight from state courts, known as the independent state legislature theory. This doctrine states that since the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures the authority to regulate federal elections, oversight of that authority must come from federal courts and the U.S. Congress, not state courts or state constitutions.

In the court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “The Elections Clause does not vest exclusive and independent authority in state legislatures to set the rules regarding federal elections…When state legislatures prescribe the rules concerning federal elections, they remain subject to the ordinary exercise of state judicial review.” The ruling continued, “when a state legislature carries out its federal constitutional power to prescribe rules regulating federal elections, it acts both as a lawmaking body created and bound by its state constitution, and as the entity assigned particular authority by the Federal Constitution. Both constitutions restrain the state legislature’s exercise of power.”

The case began when plaintiffs filed lawsuits in November 2021 challenging the validity of the state’s enacted legislative and congressional maps. On February 4, 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the congressional and legislative maps that the state enacted in 2021 were unconstitutional, and ordered the maps be redrawn. The North Carolina General Assembly redrew both sets of boundaries, but on February 23, 2022, the Wake County Superior Court struck down the Assembly’s redrawn congressional map and instead enacted a map drawn by three court-appointed special masters.

On March 17, 2022, Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives Timothy K. Moore (R) filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted review of the case on June 30, 2022. Oral argument in Moore v. Harper took place before SCOTUS on December 7, 2022.

As a result of state supreme court elections in 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court flipped from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority. On April 28, 2023, that court overturned its 2022 decision that the state’s enacted congressional and legislative maps were unconstitutional due to partisan gerrymandering. It struck down both the maps the legislature enacted in 2021 and the remedial maps used for the 2022 elections. The state supreme court further directed the General Assembly to develop new congressional and legislative boundaries to be used starting with the 2024 elections.

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