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Can Courts Intervene in Elections Cases? SCOTUS Says 'Yes'

North Carolina puzzle map.
By Michael DeRienzo, Esq. | Last updated on

If you go into a casino and the dealer stacks the deck of cards to ensure a winning hand, that's clearly cheating and would not be allowed. But when a state legislature (the dealer) redraws the district lines (stacks the decks) to ensure a majority (win) for their political party, it is that the same? Is it cheating? Should it be illegal? This practice, known as gerrymandering, has long been allowed to some degree in the United States.

But in what came as a surprise for many, the United States Supreme Court — who had long been kicking the gerrymandering can down the road — finally issued a decision on the subject that was not so wishy-washy. In the recent case of Moore v. Harper, the majority ruled in favor of limiting gerrymandering.

Rigging the Deck

How did this case come about? Well, if you've voted in North Carolina lately, you might already know.

After North Carolina discovered that it was entitled to another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly redrew the district maps in its favor. In response, multiple parties filed lawsuits to have the maps redrawn. They argued that the General Assembly's actions constituted illegal gerrymandering that violated the free election clause of the North Carolina Constitution. The matter eventually made its way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, in a series of cases known as ​Harper v. Hall​. But this case was far from one-and-done; it took three separate trips to finally come a resolution. 

In its first decision ("Harper I"), the NC Supreme Court found that the General Assembly had engaged in illegal gerrymandering and ordered the General Assembly to redraw the maps. In its second decision ("Harper II"), the same court found that second set of maps were not an adequate solution. In both cases, the court affirmed its right to intervene in the matter of gerrymandering.

However, in a third and final decision ("Harper III"), the court found that the issues of elections were "political questions," and therefore nonjusticiable. This means that the court couldn't hear this type of case in the first place. The court thus overruled its previous findings in Harper I and II, because they were improperly before the court all along. As a result, the previous decisions ordering the General Assembly to redraw the maps were undone. 

SCOTUS Reshuffles the Deck

Whether state courts have the right to limit a state legislature's decisions about their own state elections comes down to a core principle on which the United States was founded: the balance of power between states and the federal government. 

The Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution declares that the individual states have the right to determine the "time, place, and manner" of their own elections to Congress. Many states have similar clauses as to its individual elections, and North Carolina had a similar clause in its state constitution. The federal Elections Clause has been widely used in national debates. Also known as the "independent state legislature doctrine," it has been used to justify the theory that the state courts have no right to interfere with state legislatures decisions when it comes to federal elections.

But last month, SCOTUS found that argument to be without merit. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court specifically ruled that the Elections Clause does not insulate state legislature from state court decisions. Using historical context as justification for judicial review, Justice Roberts noted that the concerns of unchecked legislative power went all the way to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and Marbury v. Madison.

Can the Dealer Still Cheat?

Unfortunately, it's too early to tell whether this ruling will protect the integrity of future elections. However, with the 2024 Presidential Elections right around the corner, the SCOTUS's willingness to intervene is itself a major change from before. This is at least a sign that while there will likely be future cases clarifying other voting-related questions, courts will be a major deciding voice rather than passing the buck on contentious elections questions.

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