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US: Supreme Court hears Republican bid to transform U.S. elections

Editorial Roundup: United States

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By Andrew Chung and Nate Raymond

FILE PHOTO: Scenes of capitol hill in Washington, U.S. © Thomson Reuters FILE PHOTO: Scenes of capitol hill in Washington, U.S.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments on Wednesday in a Republican appeal that could transform American elections by giving politicians more power over voting rules and curbing the ability of state courts to scrutinize their actions in a major case involving North Carolina congressional districts.

Republican state lawmakers are appealing a decision by North Carolina's top court to throw out a map delineating the state's 14 U.S. House of Representatives districts - approved last year by the Republican-controlled state legislature - as unlawfully biased against Democratic voters.

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The Republicans are asking the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, to embrace a once-marginal legal theory that has gained favor among some conservatives called the "independent state legislature" doctrine. Under that doctrine, they claim that the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures, - and not other entities such as state courts - authority over election rules and electoral district maps.

Critics have said that the theory, if accepted, could upend American democratic norms by restricting a crucial check on partisan political power and breed voter confusion with rules that vary between state and federal contests. North Carolina's Department of Justice is now defending the actions of the state's high court alongside the voters and voting rights groups that challenged the Republican-drawn map. They are backed by Democratic President Joe Biden's administration.

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At the outset of the arguments, David Thompson, a lawyer for the state lawmakers, told the justices that the Constitution "requires state legislatures specifically to perform the federal function of prescribing regulations for federal elections. States lack the authority to restrict the legislature’s substantive discretion when performing this federal function."

The Supreme Court's eventual decision, due by the end of June, could apply to 2024 elections including the U.S. presidential race.

The doctrine is based in part on language in the Constitution stating that the "times, places and manner" of federal elections "shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof."

The Republican lawmakers have argued that the state court unconstitutionally usurped the North Carolina General Assembly's authority to regulate federal elections. Conservative voter advocacy groups backing them have endorsed the doctrine to curb what they describe as brazen attempts by liberals and Democrats to rewrite election laws through the courts.

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The case has come to the Supreme Court at a time of sharp divisions over voting rights in the United States as Republican state legislatures have pursued new voting restrictions in the aftermath of Republican former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.

The doctrine could endanger thousands of election-related state constitutional provisions, rules adopted by state elections officials and voter referendum-powered reforms, according to New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

Some elections experts have said the doctrine could make it easier for a state legislature's majority party to draw congressional district boundaries to entrench its own power, a practice called gerrymandering. They also have said it could hinder challenges on issues such as voter-identification requirements, mail-in ballots and ballot drop boxes, and could factor into lawsuits that arise in the heat of an election.

North Carolina's legislature passed its version of the congressional map in November 2021. Two groups of plaintiffs, including Democratic voters and an environmental group, then sued, arguing that the map violated state constitutional provisions concerning free elections and freedom of assembly, among others.

The North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the map in February, 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 subsequently rejected the legislature's redrawn map and adopted a new map drawn by a bipartisan group of experts. The Supreme Court in March declined a Republican request to put those lower court actions on hold.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

‘Moore v. Harper’: A threat to US democracy or a meaningless exaggeration? .
Conservative Supreme Court justices are leaning towards removing checks and balances on state legislatures in drawing up electoral rules and mapsDuring the hearing, conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch appeared to lean toward handing more power to state legislatures, which are mostly Republican-controlled, to delimit electoral districts and take other decisions that Democrats fear could lead to voter suppression, without the control of judges or state constitutions. However, the three conservative justices have so far displayed an intermediate stance, or have remained silent on the scope of their decision.

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