US Supreme Court rejects independent state legislature theory

On June 27, the US Supreme Court delivered a 6-3 decision in the case of Moore v Harper, rejecting a legal theory that had major implications for the future of redistricting in every state, including Pennsylvania.

In this historic case, North Carolina legislators argued that their state Supreme Court did not have the authority to strike down a gerrymandered congressional map that clearly violated the North Carolina Constitution. The legislators based their case on a spurious and dangerous interpretation of the US Constitution Elections Clause, known as the “independent state legislature theory,” which asserts that state courts and constitutions have no authority over matters covered by that clause.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts affirmed the responsibility of state courts to review legislative activity in regard to elections and redistricting. As his opinion makes clear, historic checks and balances between legislative and judicial branches apply at the state as well as federal level.

State legislators are bound by both the US and state constitutions; legislative actions, including district maps, are subject to review from both federal and state courts.

This decision is good news for voters in every state, especially in states that have sought intervention by state high courts to address extreme partisan gerrymandering of congressional district plans. The Moore v Harper decision confirms the 2018 decision of the PA Supreme Court in overturning a congressional plan that locked in a 13-5 advantage for the PA GOP from 2012 through 2016.

Of additional importance: the decision reinforced precedent from Hildebrandt (1916) and Smiley v Holm (1932), historic cases invoked in a 2015 case addressing the constitutionality of an Arizona ballot initiative which amended Arizona’s Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission. In that 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court concluded that, to quote Justice Roberts, “the people of Arizona retained the authority to create ‘an alternative legislative process’ by vesting the lawmaking power of redistricting in an independent commission.”

Given the majority decision of Moore v Harper, Fair Districts PA will continue work to amend the PA constitution to create an independent citizens redistricting commission. Watch for legislation to be introduced in Fall 2023 and join us in celebrating the affirmation of our right to free and equal elections, fair district maps, and a people-powered redistricting process.