The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Supreme Court asks for more briefs on important election-law case

Request comes after North Carolina Supreme Court, newly controlled by Republicans, decides to rehear challenge of congressional map

The U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 13. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The Supreme Court on Thursday called for more briefing on whether it should still decide one of the term’s most important cases, involving whether state legislators may manipulate congressional district lines and set federal voting rules without any oversight from state courts.

The case is one of the most important and potentially far-reaching of the term. Justices said they want to know how a decision by the North Carolina Supreme Court to rehear the lawsuit affects the high court’s proceedings.

At issue is “independent state legislature theory,” which holds that the U.S. Constitution gives exclusive authority to state legislators to structure federal elections, subject only to intervention by Congress. That is true, those who favor the theory say, even if those plans result in extreme partisan voting maps for congressional seats and violate voter protections enshrined in state constitutions.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the North Carolina case in December.

Supreme Court seems wary of massive shift of electoral authority

Analysts said the map created by the Republican-led North Carolina legislature after the 2020 Census would have given the GOP an edge in 10 of 14 congressional districts. The state Supreme Court, which has elected justices and at the time had a Democratic majority, threw the map out, saying the districts had a partisan tilt “not explained by the political geography of North Carolina” and violated a state constitutional right to fair elections.

Under the new map imposed by the state Supreme Court for the 2022 elections, the state’s congressional delegation is evenly split.

But those elections also ushered in a changed state Supreme Court, now controlled by Republicans. Those justices agreed to a rehearing in the underlying case, which is scheduled for March 14. The decision was controversial because no facts in the case had changed, only the composition of the court.

Lawyers in the case don’t think the North Carolina rehearing necessarily affects the U.S. Supreme Court’s deliberations. But the justices could find that if the North Carolina court reverses its decision, the question in Moore v. Harper might be moot.

The U.S. Supreme Court has asked parties in the case to file new briefs by March 20 on the effects “of the North Carolina Supreme Court’s February 3, 2023 order granting rehearing, and any subsequent state court proceedings.”

At oral argument in December, a majority of the U.S. justices seemed reluctant to conclude that state courts should be shut out of a role in reviewing legislative decisions on redistricting. But some justices seemed open to federal judicial oversight of those decisions when the courts overstep their roles.