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Supreme Court leans toward limiting judicial scrutiny of U.S. elections

World Dec 07, 2022 10:46PM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The sun sets on the U.S. Supreme Court building after a stormy day in Washington, U.S., November 11, 2022. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Andrew Chung and Nate Raymond

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority on Wednesday appeared to ready to limit judicial power to overrule voting policies crafted by state politicians but might not go as far as Republican North Carolina lawmakers want in a case the liberal justices painted as a threat to American democratic norms.

The court heard arguments in a case the state lawmakers have used to try to persuade the justices to endorse a contentious legal theory gaining traction in conservative legal circles that would prevent state courts from reviewing the legality of actions by state legislatures regulating federal elections.

The Republican lawmakers are appealing the top North Carolina court's decision to throw out the map they devised for the state's 14 U.S. House of Representatives districts as unlawfully biased against Democratic voters. Another state court then replaced that map with one drawn by a bipartisan group of experts.

The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority, and its most conservative justices including Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch appeared willing to embrace the "independent state legislature" doctrine presented by the Republican legislators.

While the conservative justices in general asked questions that indicated skepticism toward the state court actions, some signaled that the Republican argument that state constitutions cannot constrain the power of legislatures in setting rules for congressional and presidential elections might go too far.

Under the once-marginal legal theory they are now promoting, the lawmakers argue that the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures - and not other entities such as state courts - authority over election rules and electoral district maps.

The court's liberal justices suggested the doctrine could free legislatures to adopt all manner of voting restrictions. Lawyers arguing against it also said it could sow confusion by allowing voting rules that vary between state and federal contests.

"This is a proposal that gets rid of the normal checks and balances on the way big governmental decisions are made in this country," liberal Justice Elena Kagan said, referring to the interaction between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. "And you might think that it gets rid of all those checks and balances at exactly the time when they are needed most."

America is sharped divided over voting rights. Republican-led state legislatures have pursued new voting restrictions in the aftermath of Republican former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.

The court's eventual decision, due by the end of June, could apply to 2024 elections including the U.S. presidential race.

During the three-hour argument, the justices touched on the issue of enabling federal courts to review state court actions to ensure that judges do not behave like legislators or unfairly apply vague state constitutional provisions such as those requiring free and fair elections to disempower lawmakers.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts wondered whether such broadly worded provisions provide proper "standards and guidelines" for state courts to apply.

ALITO WEIGHS IN

Alito dismissed arguments that legislatures would be unchecked if the Republican position carried the day.

"Under any circumstances, no matter what we say the 'Elections Clause' means, Congress can always come in and establish the manner of conducting congressional elections," Alito said, referring to the Constitution's elections language.

The doctrine is based in part on the Constitution's statement that the "times, places and manner" of federal elections "shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof." The Republican lawmakers argued that the state court usurped the North Carolina General Assembly's authority under that provision to regulate federal elections.

Kagan said the theory would free state legislators to engage in the "most extreme forms of gerrymandering" - drawing electoral districts to unfairly improve a party's election chances - while enacting "all manner of restrictions on voting," noting that lawmakers by virtue of coveting re-election may have incentives to suppress, dilute and negate votes.

Kagan said the theory also could let legislatures insert themselves into the process of determining winners in federal elections - a sensitive issue following the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack by Trump supporters who sought to block congressional certification of Biden's 2020 election victory.

'HISTORICAL PRACTICE'

Some conservative justices appeared to balk at aspects of the Republican arguments.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh emphasized the "historical practice" that "nearly all state constitutions regulate federal elections in some way." Roberts said another check on a legislature's power - a state governor's veto - "significantly undermines the argument that it can do whatever it wants."

David Thompson, arguing for the North Carolina lawmakers, said the Constitution "requires state legislatures specifically to perform the federal function of prescribing regulations for federal elections. States lack the authority to restrict the legislature's substantive discretion when performing this federal function."

Kavanaugh told Thompson that his position on the theory's breadth "seems to go further" than that conceived by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist in a concurrence to a 2000 ruling deciding a presidential election's outcome - an opinion seeing state courts as exceeding their authority on federal elections.

North Carolina's Department of Justice is defending the state high court's February ruling alongside the voters and voting rights groups that challenged the map approved by the legislature in November 2021. They are backed by Democratic President Joe Biden's administration.

Elizabeth Prelogar, arguing for Biden's administration, said empowering state legislatures the way the Republicans want would "wreak havoc in the administration of elections across the nation" and cause federal courts to become flooded with lawsuits concerning state-administered elections.

Supreme Court leans toward limiting judicial scrutiny of U.S. elections
 

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Comments (6)
Ken Roth
Ken Roth Dec 08, 2022 9:35AM ET
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Still mean that the SCOTUS is totally broken and has become a political institution for the MAGA fans. The members are highly prejudiced pro MAGA republicans, which means that they have totally lost their objectivity and thus their main reason for existing. Forget about a fair trial in USA, no longer exist. The supreme court should at all times consist of a balanced set of judges where personal opinions is not relevant either by a 50/50 rule of dems/republicans or plainly being selected solely by their merits and ability to balance the US constitutional law. A random president should not be selecting a SCOTUS judge, when the president have a majority in the senate.
Ken Roth
Ken Roth Dec 08, 2022 9:35AM ET
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lakes Tenn you mean the document written in year 17th century and off course the world have not changed since….so we should all live like they did in the 17th century
Tre Hsi
Tre Hsi Dec 08, 2022 5:33AM ET
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"The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority, and its most conservative justices including Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch appeared willing to embrace the "independent state legislature" doctrine presented by the Republican legislators."  -- of course the MAGA GOP is so short-sighted these days that they ignore the fact that this will work both ways.......if this is the decision, I can just see 10 years from now all the MAGA GOP will be complaining about how the woke liberal politicians in purple states tinkered with the election process and the courts couldn't do anything about it......
Ken Roth
Ken Roth Dec 08, 2022 5:33AM ET
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good thing is that the democrats have the senate majority and could now in principle stay in power forever.
Tre Hsi
Tre Hsi Dec 08, 2022 5:33AM ET
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Ken Roth  well if you go by the MAGA interpretation of the constitution (before Trump's proposal of termination that is), the VP has the power to void the election results, so Kamala Harris can just decide the winner in the 2024 election, no?
First Last
First Last Dec 08, 2022 5:33AM ET
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Ken Roth   Senate seats can't be gerrymandered
Ken Roth
Ken Roth Dec 08, 2022 5:33AM ET
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Tre Hsi yes that would be MAGA fans and Trump logic no need for an election
First Last
First Last Dec 08, 2022 5:33AM ET
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Ken Roth   We only need elections because of the Constitution, so ...
Elezabeth Thomas
Elezabeth Thomas Dec 08, 2022 5:21AM ET
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of course! par for the course.
First Last
First Last Dec 07, 2022 10:24AM ET
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Republicans has turned into extremist retrumplicans who lost popularity and can't win elections fairly, so they are turning to terminating the Constitution to rewrite the rules of the game in their favor.
gab nea
gab nea Dec 07, 2022 10:21AM ET
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they have to cheat, cant win honestly!
Tommy Lambert
Tommy Lambert Dec 07, 2022 10:21AM ET
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That's what Republicans are trying to end, democratic cheating. #VoterID
First Last
First Last Dec 07, 2022 10:21AM ET
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Tommy Lambert   Most cases of election frauds committed in last few years were by retrumplicans.
Michael Roal Casa
Michael Roal Casa Dec 07, 2022 7:00AM ET
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Republicans being repugnicans
 
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