Cutting Through the Noise: What You Need to Know about the Supreme Court’s Recent Election Law Decision

By: Jason Torchinsky, Andrew D. Watkins, Andrew Pardue, and Colson Douglas

You may have heard that the Supreme Court recently released its decision in Moore v. Harper, a case about the role state courts can take in reviewing election laws enacted by a state’s legislature. What you probably haven’t heard is what this means for election laws in your state.

The Decision

On June 27, 2023, the Supreme Court released its much anticipated opinion in Moore v. Harper. At issue was the North Carolina Supreme Court’s interpretation of a state constitutional provision to strike down district maps enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly on partisan gerrymandering grounds. Chief Justice Roberts issued the majority decision holding, in part, that state legislatures are bound by the “requirements imposed ‘by the state constitution,’” when enacting state laws—such as new congressional districts—pursuant to their authority under the Federal Constitution’s Elections Clause (which gives state legislatures primary authority to set the “Times, Places and Manner” for holding federal elections).

Importantly, however, the Chief Justice’s opinion clarified that “state courts do not have free rein.” Because the Elections Clause vests power explicitly with the state “Legislature,” federal courts have “an obligation to ensure that state court interpretations of [state] law do not evade federal law,” including the U.S. Constitution. However, the Supreme Court refused to adopt any test to for determining when a state courts interpretation of state law may “implicat[e] the Elections Clause.” Instead, the Court only held that state courts cannot use judicial review of state laws to “arrogate to themselves the power vested in state legislatures to regulate federal elections.”

What It Means for State Election Laws

For the first time, the Supreme Court acknowledged that state courts do not have “free rein” when interpreting their state election laws as they apply to federal elections. However, their decision not to adopt an explicit test for when state courts may go too far in this case will likely do little in the short term to clamp down on partisan legal challenges seeking to have state courts enact changes to state election laws. While the Court’s decision acknowledges what many have long advocated—that state courts cannot use judicial review of state laws to take for themselves the legislature’s power to enact federal election laws—it lacks much needed clarity as to how federal courts should determine whether a state courts interpretation of its state laws has effectively “arrogated” the legislature’s role.

**Holtzman Vogel filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Republican National Committee, NRCC, and North Carolina Republican Party and on behalf of the National Republican Redistricting Trust in this case.