To understand both the Trump-led Republican effort to overturn the 2020 election and the lingering Republican bitterness surrounding that contest, it’s important to remember that the G.O.P.’s attack on American democracy had two aspects, a conspiracy theory and a coup theory. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to both. In a case called Moore v. Harper, the court rejected the “independent state legislature doctrine,” reaffirmed the soundness of the 2020 election and secured the integrity of elections to come.
First, a bit of background. The effort to steal the 2020 election depended on two key arguments. The first, the conspiracy theory, was that the election was fundamentally flawed; the second, the coup theory, was that the Constitution provided a remedy that would enable Donald Trump to take office.
The disparate elements of the conspiracy theory varied from truly wild claims about voting machines being manipulated and Italian satellites somehow altering the outcome to more respectable arguments that pandemic-induced changes in voting procedures were both unconstitutional and disproportionately benefited Democrats. For example, in one of the most important cases filed during the 2020 election season, the Pennsylvania Republican Party argued that changes in voting procedures mandated by the State Supreme Court violated the Constitution by overriding the will of the Pennsylvania legislature.
The Pennsylvania G.O.P. argued for a version of the independent state legislature doctrine, a theory that the Constitution grants state legislatures — and state legislatures alone — broad, independent powers to regulate elections for president and for Congress. The basis for this argument is found in both Article I and Article II of the Constitution. The relevant provision of Article I states, “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” And Article II’s Electors Clause says, “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress.”
The question was whether those two clauses essentially insulated the state legislatures from accountability to other state branches of government, including from judicial review by state courts.
The Supreme Court refused to hear the Pennsylvania G.O.P.’s petition, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissenting. But the issue was bound to come back to the court, and in Moore v. Harper it did.
The case turned on a complicated North Carolina redistricting dispute. After the 2020 census, the Republican-dominated state legislature drew up a new district map. The Democratic-controlled North Carolina Supreme Court rejected the map as an unlawful partisan gerrymander under state law, and the legislature appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the State Supreme Court had no authority to override the legislature. The Supreme Court accepted the review.
After SCOTUS took the case, last November’s midterm elections handed control of the North Carolina Supreme Court to Republicans, and the new, Republican-dominated court reversed itself. It held that partisan gerrymanders weren’t “justiciable” under state law, but it did not reinstate the legislature’s original map. This new North Carolina decision raised the question of whether the court would decide Harper on the merits or if it would dismiss the appeal as moot, given that it was based on a state ruling that had already been overturned.
By a 6-to-3 majority, the Supreme Court not only declined to dismiss the case, it also flatly rejected the independent state legislature doctrine. Justice John Roberts — writing for a majority that included Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson — was unequivocal. “The Elections Clause,” Justice Roberts declared, “does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review.”
Or, to put it another way, the relevant provisions of the federal Constitution did not grant state legislatures independent powers that exempt them from the normal operations of state constitutional law. Justice Roberts cited previous Supreme Court authority rejecting the idea that the federal Constitution endows “the legislature of the state with power to enact laws in any manner other than that in which the Constitution of the state has provided that laws shall be enacted.”
The implications are profound. Looking back to 2020, the Supreme Court’s decision strips away the foundation of G.O.P. arguments that the election was legally problematic because of state court interventions. Such interventions did not inherently violate the federal Constitution, and the state legislatures did not have extraordinary constitutional autonomy to independently set election rules.
Looking forward to 2024 and beyond, the Supreme Court’s decision eliminates the ability of a rogue legislature to set new electoral rules immune from judicial review. State legislatures will still be accountable for following both federal and state constitutional law. In other words, the conventional checks and balances of American law will still apply.
Trump’s coup attempt was a national trauma, but if there’s a silver lining to be found in that dark cloud, it’s that both the political and judicial branches of American government have responded to the crisis. Late last year, Congress passed significant reforms to the Electoral Count Act that were designed both to clarify the ambiguities in the original act and to reaffirm Congress’s and the vice president’s limited roles in counting state electoral votes.
And on Tuesday, a supermajority of the Supreme Court, including both Democratic and Republican appointees, reaffirmed the American constitutional order. State legislatures are not an electoral law unto themselves, and while Moore v. Harper does not guarantee that elections will be flawless, it does protect the vital role of courts in the American system. The 2020 election was sound. The 2024 election is now safer. The Supreme Court has done its part to defend American democracy from the MAGA movement’s constitutional corruption.
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David French is a New York Times Opinion columnist. He is a lawyer, writer and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a former constitutional litigator, and his most recent book is “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.” @DavidAFrench
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