Why It Matters in Ohio – US Supreme Court Rejects Independent State Legislature Theory

On Tuesday, June 28, the US Supreme Court announced its ruling on Moore v. Harper, the North Carolina redistricting case. The Court (six to three) rejected the theory that the state court had no right to curb gerrymandering. 

Two North Carolina state legislators argued that the North Carolina Supreme Court had no right to interfere in their mapmaking. Their legal argument was based on a fringe notion–the so-called Independent State Legislature Theory. Those who support this theory claim that the US Constitution’s Elections Clause gives state legislatures sole authority over federal elections in their state and bars courts from interfering in their decisions.

The US Supreme Court rejected the Independent State Legislature Theory and determined that the US Constitution’s Elections Clause “does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review.”

The Court upheld the North Carolina Supreme Court’s authority to rule on the constitutionality of the state’s congressional map. SCOTUS did reserve for itself a role in providing oversight to ensure state courts do not “transgress the ordinary boundaries of judicial review.”

This is a big win for democracy! State courts have the authority to intervene in federal elections issues, including enforcing state constitutional protections. 

“This is a historic victory for the people of North Carolina and for American democracy. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that state courts and state constitutions should serve as a critical check against abuses of power by legislators,” said Bob Phillips, Common Cause North Carolina’s executive director. 

What does this mean for Ohio?

The Ohio Constitution includes prohibitions on gerrymandering. The prohibitions on gerrymandering congressional districts were overwhelmingly approved by Ohio voters in 2018. Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court twice determined that congressional maps were unconstitutional gerrymanders. 

Rather than redraw the congressional districts and comply with the July 2021 order, legislative leaders instead referenced the Independent State Legislature Theory and appealed to the US Supreme Court arguing that the Ohio Supreme Court overstepped and didn’t have the authority to tell the state legislature what to do. 

While Huffman v. Nieman has not been dismissed, yesterday’s ruling likely will lead the US Supreme Court to dismiss this appeal and a new congressional map will need to be created for Election 2024. 

More importantly, the Moore v. Harper decision means that we can go into our next reform effort, establishing an independent citizens commission, with the clarity that reforms in the Ohio Constitution aren’t going to be circumvented because there is no judicial review or check on state legislative power. 

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the decision. He was joined by Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Samuel Alito dissented.

For additional discussion of the Moore v. Harper decision, see the following articles:

 In blow to Ohio Republicans, U.S. Supreme Court rejects state legislators’ arguments in North Carolina redistricting case – cleveland.com 

VICTORY! U.S. Supreme Court stops power grab by NC politicians in historic Moore v. Harper ruling – Common Cause North Carolina

The Supreme Court Declines to Dismantle Democracy | The New Yorker 

Want to join our Fair Districts email list? Sign-up HERE.