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US Supreme Court hears challenge to state lawmakers’ authority in elections

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US Supreme Court justices appeared divided during oral arguments in a case that could radically change how states hold elections.

North Carolina lawmakers are seeking to limit state courts’ oversight of the election maps drawn by their lawmakers. Some critics fear it could go further and thwart courts’ power to determine the validity of elections, leaving state legislatures virtually unchecked.

It is the culmination of long-running legal and political battles over state electoral maps and so-called gerrymandering across the US — where political districts are drawn to benefit a particular party. The debate touches on issues including voting rights, race and political polarisation.

North Carolina’s Republican-led general assembly argued that under the US constitution, state legislatures, rather than judges, “bear primary responsibility for setting election rules”, including those to draw congressional districts.

Liberal justices pushed back against that position. Elena Kagan said the lawmakers’ proposal would have “big consequences” and get “rid of the normal checks and balances on the way big governmental decisions are made in this country . . . at exactly the time when they are needed most”.

She warned it could also allow politicians, who have “their own self-interest”, to eliminate voter protections or “give themselves a role in the certification of elections”.

The North Carolina arguments are in line with the independent state legislature theory, which says lawmakers should be free to regulate elections with little oversight from state courts.

Critics warn that adopting an extreme version of this principle could allow state lawmakers to disregard voters and install their own set of electors, whose votes are counted by Congress to certify US presidential elections. “It’s got the doomsday 2024 drama lurking behind it — that’s another reason this is a huge case,” said Daniel Urman, law professor at Northeastern University.

Some conservative justices — including Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, seemed receptive to at least part of the state’s argument, while others appeared more sceptical.

John Roberts, the chief justice, questioned why David Thompson, the lawyer representing the North Carolina lawmakers, conceded that a state legislature’s actions are subject to the veto of the state governor, which is part of the executive branch.

This “significantly undermines the argument that [the legislature] can do whatever it wants”, Roberts said.

Thompson defined the chief justice’s example as a “procedural limitation” and rejected “substantive limitation” on a state legislature’s authority.

Conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett questioned that categorisation. “You do have a problem with explaining why these procedural limitations are OK, but substantive limitations are not,” she said.

The proceedings stem from decisions handed down by a North Carolina court, which in 2019 invalidated the state’s electoral map as unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering intended to favour Republican candidates. The map was created after a previous iteration was thrown out for racial gerrymandering. The North Carolina Supreme Court ultimately approved a map drawn up by independent “special masters”.

In opposition to North Carolina’s lawmakers, voting rights organisations say the constitution and Supreme Court precedent “refute the notion” that state lawmakers have “free rein to regulate federal elections without regard to state constitutions, as construed by state courts”, and warned that North Carolina’s interpretation of the constitution “threatens to upend centuries of settled practice in American elections”.

In a brief opposing North Carolina’s lawmakers, the association representing chief justices in all 50 states said the Supreme Court had only rarely “intruded” on state courts’ legal interpretations. If it does side with North Carolina, state legislatures would still be monitored by Congress and federal courts. But previous Supreme Court rulings could limit federal courts’ intervention in political gerrymandering, Urman at Northeastern University said.

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