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A North Carolina court overrules itself in a case tied to a disputed election theory

Demonstrators gather outside the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., with a "FLUSH GERRYMANDER" inflatable on the day the state's highest court held a rehearing for the redistricting case known nationally as <em>Moore v. Harper</em>.
Bob Karp
/
ZUMA Press/Alamy
Demonstrators gather outside the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., with a "FLUSH GERRYMANDER" inflatable on the day the state's highest court held a rehearing for the redistricting case known nationally as Moore v. Harper.

Updated April 28, 2023 at 12:25 PM ET

North Carolina's highest court has overruled its earlier decision in a congressional redistricting lawsuit, throwing into question the case's status at the U.S. Supreme Court and whether that court's justices will rule on a contentious elections issue.

In an opinion released Friday, the majority of the state court said that there is "no judicially manageable standard by which to adjudicate partisan gerrymandering claims" and courts "are not intended to meddle in policy matters."

"This case is not about partisan politics but rather about realigning the proper roles of the judicial and legislative branches. Today we begin to correct course, returning the judiciary to its designated lane," said the majority opinion, which was written by North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican.

The two Democrats on the court pushed back against the Republican majority's decision and characterization of the case. In their dissenting opinion, Justice Anita Earls said that through the earlier ruling that's now vacated, "a Democratic-controlled Court carried out its sworn duty to uphold the state constitution's guarantee of free elections, fair to all voters of both parties."

"This decision is now vacated by a Republican-controlled Court
seeking to ensure that extreme partisan gerrymanders favoring Republicans are established," wrote Earls, who was joined by Justice Michael Morgan.

The North Carolina Supreme Court's decision marks the latest twist in a complicated case that has threatened to upend federal elections across the country.

Known at the state level as Harper v. Hall, the lawsuit centers on a once-fringe, widely disputed idea — called the "independent state legislature theory" — that claims that under the U.S. Constitution, state legislatures have a special power to determine how federal elections are conducted without any checks or balances from state constitutions or state courts.

North Carolina's high court had previously ruled against a congressional map drawn by Republican state lawmakers for violating the state's constitution. But after Republican justices took over the court's majority following last year's midterm elections, the court decided to hear the case again.

That made this case especially messy because it's already been heard at the U.S. Supreme Court, as Moore v. Harper. The court now may end up throwing out the case.

Edited by Ben Swasey and Heidi Glenn

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.