The U.S. Supreme Court may be headed toward compromise on an important and polarizing case that could greatly affect how congressional and presidential elections are run.

After three hours of questioning on Wednesday justices appeared split over Moore v. Harper, a case about political gerrymandering in North Carolina. The state’s Republican legislators are asking the court to overrule the North Carolina Supreme Court, which threw out a new map of congressional districts on grounds it was skewed too favorably to the GOP.

Why We Wrote This

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a pivotal case that could make huge waves in how states govern elections. But some of the justices appear skeptical of throwing another boulder into America’s electoral waters.

The legislators are urging the court to embrace the radical independent state legislature theory. This rests on a literal interpretation of the Constitution’s elections clause, which says that the manner of federal votes shall be set in each state by the “legislature thereof.” State governors, courts, or constitutions would not have a say.

Critics say this theory would overturn centuries of common practice and Supreme Court precedents that hold the reference to “legislature” includes a state’s entire governing structure.

Oral arguments indicated that the nine justices were split into groups: three in favor of the theory, three opposed, and a middle group
looking for a way in which state Supreme Courts could still have some say in federal election disputes.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday morning on a case that could have profound effects on the way elections are run in the United States. It is one of the most important and polarizing cases of the current term, and the outcome might – maybe – be a compromise.

Over three hours, the justices probed, challenged, muttered, and at times laughed their way through a case about recent political gerrymandering in North Carolina. Looming over the argument in the case of Moore v. Harper was the phrase that has energized and frightened court watchers in almost equal measure since the court took up the case in June: the independent state legislature theory.

The ISL theory – a fringe interpretation of the U.S. Constitution’s elections clause that has never been endorsed by a court majority – holds that state legislatures have exclusive power to regulate federal elections, free of checks and balances from other branches of state government, like the governor or judiciary. Simply put, Moore asks if a state’s judiciary has the authority to override the state legislature’s redistricting power.

Why We Wrote This

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a pivotal case that could make huge waves in how states govern elections. But some of the justices appear skeptical of throwing another boulder into America’s electoral waters.

Conservative groups say the theory would be a fairer, more democratic way to draw congressional maps than what happened in North Carolina. (The state Supreme Court there struck down the legislature’s map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and replaced it with its own.)

Critics – a broad and ideologically diverse range of them – counter that state courts shouldn’t be forbidden by the federal courts from interpreting their own state constitutions. Beyond that, they argue that giving state legislatures this authority would transform how federal elections are conducted across the country – creating a two-tier voting system in which rules, procedures, and perhaps even rights vary between state and federal elections.

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