Supreme Court grapples with Republican bid to alter US elections

WASHINGTON, Dec 7 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court engaged in tense arguments on Wednesday in a Republican appeal that could reshape U.S. elections by giving politicians more power over voting rules. Includes North Carolina congressional districts.

The court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, heard about three hours of arguments with its conservatives, including Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, sympathetic to Republican arguments. The position of others, including Chief Justice John Roberts, was a tougher read, raising the possibility of a less broad ruling than Republican state lawmakers are seeking to appeal. Three liberal justices dissented from Republican arguments.

Lawmakers are appealing a North Carolina Supreme Court decision to throw out a map that delineated the state’s 14 U.S. House of Representatives districts — approved last year by the Republican-controlled state legislature — as illegal against Democratic voters.

Republican lawmakers are asking the Supreme Court to adopt a once-fringe legal doctrine that has gained favor among some conservatives, known as the “independent state legislature” doctrine. Under that theory, they say, the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures — not other agencies like state courts — authority over election rules and election district maps.

Critics have said the theory, if adopted, could upend American democratic norms by limiting important checks on partisan political power and create voter confusion with rules that vary between state and federal contests. North Carolina’s Justice Department is now defending the state Supreme Court’s actions, along with voters and voting rights groups that challenged the Republican-drawn map. They are supported by the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden.

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“This is a plan that removes the normal checks and balances in the way big government decisions are made in this country,” said liberal Justice Elena Kagan, referring to the interactions between executive, legislative and judicial governments. “Then you’d think those checks and balances would fall into place in a time of greatest need.”

America struggles with sharp divisions over voting rights. Following false claims by former Republican President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voter fraud, Republican-led state legislatures have adopted new voting restrictions.

“Think about the implications, because this is a theory with big consequences,” Kagan said.

Kagan said the doctrine would free state legislatures to engage in “very serious gerrymandering” — drawing electoral districts to unfairly improve a party’s electoral chances — while enacting “all kinds of restrictions on voting” and ending “all kinds of voter protections.” “

Kagan said state legislators often encourage vote suppression, dilution and denial in their eagerness to win re-election. Kagan also said the doctrine frees legislatures to insert themselves into the certification of the results of federal elections — a critical issue in light of the frenzy at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters who sought to block Biden’s congressional certification on Jan. 6, 2021. 2020 election victory.

Alito rejected arguments that state legislatures would be barred if the Republican position were adopted tomorrow.

“Congress can always come in and establish the way Congress conducts elections, regardless of what the ‘election clause’ means under any circumstances,” Alito said, referring to the Constitution’s election language.

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“The reason we have a case is that the power doesn’t simply come from the state constitution, but the power comes from the federal constitution, which gives the legislature the power to implement it,” Roberts said.

‘Powerless’

David Thompson, an attorney for state lawmakers, told the justices that “the Constitution specifically requires state legislatures to perform the federal function of prescribing regulations for federal elections. States do not have the power to limit the legislature’s substantive discretion in performing this federal function.”

The Supreme Court’s final ruling will apply to the 2024 elections, including the US presidential election due by the end of June.

The doctrine is based on language in the Constitution that says the “times, places and manners” of federal elections “shall be prescribed in each state by its legislature.”

Roberts noted that state lawmakers have agreed that even under their legal doctrine they would allow the state governor to veto any measures passed by the state legislature.

“Giving the Legislature a veto power over actions significantly undermines the argument that it can do whatever it wants,” Roberts said.

Republican lawmakers argued that the state court had unconstitutionally usurped the North Carolina General Assembly’s power to regulate federal elections. Thompson also argued that state constitutions could not impose substantive limits on the actions of legislatures in federal elections.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanagh told Thompson that his stance on the breadth of the free state legislature doctrine “seems to go further” than then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s ruling that decided the outcome of the 2000 presidential election — a decision that state courts overruled. Authority for Federal Elections.

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Elizabeth Preloger, who advocates for Biden’s administration, said giving state legislatures the power Republican lawmakers want would “destroy election administration across the country” and lead to federal courts being flooded with lawsuits asking states to weigh in. Conducted elections.

Neal Katyal, who argued on behalf of voting rights groups, said adopting the doctrine of free state legislatures would mean a misreading of the election language of the U.S. Constitution for 233 years.

Thomas questioned whether Katyal, who served as solicitor general under former Democratic President Barack Obama, would make the same arguments to the state Supreme Court if North Carolina’s legislature adopts a congressional map that is “too generous to minority voters.” It is.

North Carolina’s legislature approved its congressional map in November 2021. Two groups sued, arguing the map violated state constitutional provisions regarding free elections and assembly freedom. The North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the map in February. A lower state court later rejected the legislature’s redrawn map and accepted one drawn by a bipartisan panel of experts.

Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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