Hello, and Happy Thursday,
It’s no secret that the US supreme court has been hostile to voting rights recently. But two recent decisions, I think, highlight why what the court is doing is both alarming and inconsistent.
On Monday evening, the court gave Democrats two major victories, blocking Republican attempts to impose unfair congressional maps in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In both states the respective state supreme courts had redrawn them to be fairer – decisions which the US supreme court upheld. Yet even though legal experts expected this outcome, a dissenting opinion from three of the court’s conservative justices set off loud alarm bells for me.
The dissent was authored by Justice Samuel Alito (and joined by Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch in the North Carolina case). The three justices wrote that they would have blocked the state supreme court maps from going into effect. They pointed to a provision in the US constitution, the elections clause, that explicitly gives state legislatures the authority to set the “time, manner, and place” of federal elections. That provision, they said, likely means that state supreme courts can’t impose a new map, even if the one the legislature adopts violates a state’s constitution.
“If the language of the Elections Clause is taken seriously, there must be some limit on the authority of state courts to countermand actions taken by state legislatures when they are prescribing rules for the conduct of federal elections,” Alito wrote.
Alito’s dissent embraces an idea called the “independent state legislature doctrine”. Increasingly popular among conservative litigants, it argues that state courts cannot second-guess election rules – whether it be a gerrymandered map or a new voter ID law – passed by a legislature. It would give state legislatures enormous power over elections.
The theory largely fell into disuse in the early 20th century, according to a paper by Michael Morley, a law professor at Florida State University. The supreme court has also repeatedly rejected the idea over the last century. But in a handful of cases during the 2020 election, Alito, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch and Thomas all expressed interest in the idea.
The focus on this idea is also notable because it is directly at odds with what Alito and other conservative justices have said recently.
Reading Alito’s dissent, I couldn’t help but think of a majority opinion that he, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh signed onto in 2019. In that case, called Rucho v Common Cause, they were part of a majority that said federal courts could not do anything to stop partisan gerrymandering. But, Roberts wrote, state laws and state courts could continue to police it. It was a clear instruction to litigants that they should take their cases about partisan gerrymandering to state courts, which is exactly what they did in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Now, Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch – and maybe Kavanaugh – seem to be backing away from that position.
It’s not the only area of voting rights law where the supreme court has pulled a kind of bait-and-switch recently. In 2013, when a majority of the court, including Roberts, Alito and Thomas, gutted the the heart of the Voting Rights Act, designed to prevent voting discrimination, it pointed to another provision of the law, section 2, as a tool litigants could continue to use. But recently, the court has been slowly chipping away at section 2, too, making it harder to challenge laws under it and stepping in to overrule lower courts that have relied on it to block discriminatory maps. Taken together, the cases show how the supreme court is slowly attacking laws that are supposed to prevent Americans against voting discrimination.
One other piece of Alito’s dissent deserves attention because it is, I would argue, hypocritical. In two short paragraphs, Alito explained why he didn’t think it would be a big deal for a court to step in and order North Carolina to adopt new congressional districts after candidates had begun filing for office ahead of the state’s 17 May primary. The public interest favored such a reset, he said, to ensure that districts were constitutional. All candidates would have to do, he said, was file a new form indicating they were running in the districts the legislature, not the state supreme court, had adopted. “That would not have been greatly disruptive,” he wrote.
But last month, Alito took the opposite approach when he agreed with an opinion by Kavanaugh saying it would be too disruptive to impose new, non-discriminatory maps for Alabama’s 24 May primary – a week later than the one in North Carolina. Kavanaugh wrote: “Running elections statewide is extraordinarily complicated and difficult. Those elections require enormous advance preparations by state and local officials, and pose significant logistical challenges.”
That argument prompted a furious response from Justice Elena Kagan, who said discrimination in Alabama should not get a free pass merely because elections were on the horizon. “Alabama is not entitled to keep violating Black Alabamians’ voting rights just because the court’s order came down in the first month of an election year,” she said.
The opposing conclusions Alito reached in both cases underscores the immense discretion he is wielding on the bench to evaluate these claims. In North Carolina, when the legislature’s constitutional rights were at issue, it warranted the supreme court’s intervention. In Alabama, when Black Americans’ voting rights were at issue, he believed the court’s intervention was not needed.
Also worth watching…
A Colorado election clerk was indicted on charges she helped allow unaurthorized access to voting equipment.
Florida Republicans are on the verge of creating a new office to investigate election crimes.
The top election official in Texas’s largest county announced she would resign after the county experienced significant voting problems in the state’s primary.
Newly released records in Wisconsin provide insight into a widely criticized review of the 2020 election.