▶ Watch Video: Supreme Court weighs case that could change federal elections

Washington — The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a controversial theory that would have given state lawmakers unfettered power to set the rules for federal elections in their states, ruling that the so-called “independent state legislative theory” is inconsistent with the Constitution.

In declining to embrace the idea, which stems from an interpretation of the Constitution’s Elections Clause, the court left in place a key check on state lawmakers’ actions altering how federal elections in their states are conducted and their drawing of congressional maps.

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion for the 6-3 majority in the case known as Moore v. Harper, finding that the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review the opinion of the North Carolina Supreme Court, and that the Constitution’s Elections Clause does not grant exclusive and independent authority in state legislatures to set the rules regarding federal elections.

The decision is a major victory for voting rights advocates, who feared that a ruling adopting the independent legislature theory would wreak havoc on election systems, and allow state legislatures to operate unchecked when setting federal election rules and drawing voting lines.

“The Elections Clause does not insulate state legislatures from the ordinary exercise of state judicial review,” Roberts wrote.

The Elections Clause states: “the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”  

Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito dissented.

Though the court concluded that the clause “does not exempt state legislatures from the ordinary constraints imposed by state law,” Roberts noted that state courts “do not have free rein.” 

“We hold only that state courts may not transgress the ordinary bounds of judicial review such that they arrogate to themselves the power vested in state legislatures to regulate federal elections,” the chief justice wrote.

The “independent state legislature theory” asserts that state legislatures have unfettered authority to set presidential and congressional elections rules without oversight from state courts to ensure they comply with state constitutions. The concept lay largely dormant for more than 15 years, but regained attention after the 2020 presidential election when it was raised by former President Donald Trump’s allies as part of efforts to reverse the outcome of the election.

Moore v. Harper arose from the redrawing of North Carolina’s congressional map by state Republican legislative leaders after the 2020 Census. The state supreme court invalidated the voting boundaries, finding they were an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. 

After a state trial court rejected new congressional voting lines drawn by the GOP-controlled General Assembly, it adopted a map drawn by a group of special masters, to be used only for the 2022 election cycle.

North Carolina Republicans asked the Supreme Court to intervene, arguing that under the Elections Clause, state courts did not have the authority to change rules governing the “times, place and manner” of federal elections. By allowing the court-crafted map to be used, they said, the state’s judiciary had decided the “manner” in which North Carolina’s congressional elections would be held, usurping the power granted to the state legislature. 

Months after the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, the North Carolina Supreme Court reconsidered part of a 2022 decision that the justices were reviewing. In March, the Supreme Court asked the parties involved — North Carolina GOP legislators, voting rights groups and voters, state election officials and the Biden administration — to submit additional briefs explaining whether it still had the power to decide the case, raising questions of whether the justices would decide the dispute after all.

Then, in late April, the state supreme court’s Republican majority overturned the earlier February 2022 ruling that invalidated congressional voting lines drawn by state GOP lawmakers. The ruling from North Carolina’s high court effectively gives state lawmakers the green-light to draw its congressional map to favor GOP candidates. 

Before the court agreed to take up the appeal from North Carolina Republicans, the three justices that ultimately dissented — Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch — expressed support for the independent state legislature theory. A fourth, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, urged the Supreme Court to consider the issue.