US Supreme Court indicates it may sidestep major elections ruling

FILE PHOTO: People walk across the plaza to enter the U.S. Supreme Court building on the first day of the court’s new term in Washington

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday signaled it may sidestep a ruling in a major case involving a Republican bid to give state legislatures far more power over federal elections by limiting the ability of state courts to review their actions.

The North Carolina Supreme Court last month granted a request by Republican state legislators to revisit its ruling last year against a map they devised of the state's 14 U.S. House of Representatives districts. In light of that, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the various parties in the case including the U.S. Justice Department to submit briefs offering views on the effect of the state court's actions on the justices' jurisdiction over the matter.

The state Supreme Court blocked the Republican map as unlawfully biased against Democratic voters. But the court has undergone a change in its ideological makeup - now holding a majority of Republican judges instead of Democratic judges. That could lead to a reversal of last year's ruling.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the dispute in December but has not issued a ruling in the high-profile case.

The justices' order on Thursday cited a federal law giving it jurisdiction over final judgments issued by state supreme courts. If the justices decide that they no longer have jurisdiction, they could dismiss the case.

Members of the state Supreme Court are elected by voters in North Carolina. In November's elections, it flipped from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority. That court is due to rehear the case this month.

In the high-profile case, the Republican legislators had urged the U.S. Supreme Court to embrace a once-marginal legal theory now embraced by many U.S. conservatives that would remove any role of state courts and state constitutions in regulating presidential and congressional elections.

The Supreme Court's conservative majority appeared inclined to rule in favor of the Republicans and limit state judicial power to overrule voting policies crafted by state politicians, though perhaps without going as far as the lawmakers wanted. Liberal justices painted the challenge as a threat to American democratic norms.

The legal theory in the case, called the "independent state legislature" doctrine, is based in part on the U.S. Constitution's statement that the "times, places and manner" of federal elections "shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof."

In their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the North Carolina Republicans contended that the state court usurped the state General Assembly's authority under that provision to regulate federal elections.

The North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the map in February 2022, concluding that the way the districts were crafted was intentionally biased against Democrats, diluting their "fundamental right to equal voting power."

A lower state court then rejected a redrawn map submitted by the legislature and instead adopted a new one drawn by a bipartisan group of experts. That map was in use during the November U.S. congressional elections.

Democratic President Joe Biden's administration argued against the Republican position when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and John Kruzel in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)