A few more quick thoughts on Moore

Moore v. Harper, much like Allen v. Milligan, was a shocker for me. Given how the posture of the case had changed, I didn’t expect the justices to reach the merits. I’m glad they did. A few thoughts:

1) In some ways, Moore v. Harper reads as a reaffirmation of the concept of judicial review, closing the loop on this idea that the Elections Clause is an exception to this principle that insulates state legislative action over federal elections from review in federal court and, until this case, possibly state court. While state courts are differently positioned than their federal counterparts, I had underestimated how much the Supreme Court might view this case as a threat to the concept of judicial review, more generally.

In Rucho v. Common Cause, the Supreme Court held that partisan gerrymandering claims were nonjusticiable political questions that would not be heard in federal court. But the Court also explicitly rejected the idea that claims brought under the Elections Clause, unlike those brought pursuant to the Guarantee Clause, were judicially unreviewable. These two principles are not necessarily in tension because it could be the case that partisan gerrymandering claims are just not the type of Election Clause claims that the Court feels capable of resolving even though other types of claims under this provision might be more manageable. Despite the Court’s assertions to the contrary, however, Rucho might have opened the door for the Elections Clause to function as a provision that has limited judicial enforcement, a sentiment that the Court sought to shut down in Moore v. Harper.

2) Second, what does Moore mean in light of Milligan, the Alabama Section 2 case from a couple of weeks ago that shocked every election scholar I know? One might say that the Court is affirming that it is still very much a player in the democracy space, again pushing back against the (rightful) perception that, after Rucho and Bronovich, the Court is less committed to policing our system of democracy. In addition, both Milligan and Moore offer an opportunity for the Court to push back against these negative perceptions by simply reaffirming the status quo. Milligan reaffirmed that Section 2 vote dilution claims are still actionable under the Gingles framework, and Moore rejects a theory that would have caused a sea change in how state courts oversee the actions of state legislatures with respect to federal elections. The Court gets a huge pay off, in terms of maintaining its legitimacy, but by structurally changing very little.

3) There are a couple things at play in Moore that run contrary to our assumptions about the Court’s more general anti-Democratic posture that are worth pointing out. First, there may just be some arguments that go too far, and would be too disruptive should they become law, that they turn off some of the more conservative members of the Court. That says a lot about where we are as a democracy, and where this Court is as an institution.

To this point, Chief Justice Roberts (writing for the majority) discusses Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission as proof that legislatures are not the sole source of lawmaking authority over federal elections within a state, even though he wrote a lengthy dissent in that case arguing that the term “legislature” as used in the Elections Clause means the institutional legislature and not the broader lawmaking processes. He reliance on this case, despite his very heated dissent, is further proof (along with Justice Thomas’ reliance on the case as well) that the goal posts have moved from basic questions of whether “legislature” means “legislature” to more nuanced concerns about whether legislatures should be given broad authority, subject only to very little oversight from a massively dysfunctional Congress, to blow up any notion of democracy within their borders. Roberts is known for using subsequent cases to minimize or subvert holdings that he doesn’t necessarily agree with, but he doesn’t do that here (at least not as much as he normally does, see point 4 below).

Second, John Roberts, in rejecting the independent state legislature theory, might be defending his legacy. He wrote Rucho, which asserted that state law and state courts could be a more than adequate response to the ills of partisan gerrymandering than any remedy the federal courts could provide. Would he be willing to sign on to any theory that could call into question a decision (and a controversial one, at that) that Roberts authored less than five years ago? Probably not. Again, it is not that the author of Shelby County has become a huge democracy advocate but he might feel the need to defend his turf a bit.

I am sure that, given these stakes, 100 years of precedent rejecting the idea that state legislatures have exclusive authority to regulate federal elections is much more persuasive than the Federalist 78, which the dissenters rely on to argue that state legislatures are empowered in this manner. Moore is also a very common-sense decision – state legislatures cannot be free of the constraints of the documents (state constitutions) that created them nor has it been true that state legislatures exercise power in this domain independent of the other branches of state government. The fact that we had to contemplate otherwise is an insane bit of nonsense that I hope died a sure death today.

4) To be clear, I am not asserting that the Roberts Court has all of a sudden become the Warren Court. Towards the end of the opinion, in typical Roberts form, he offers some vague constraints on state courts that apply when they are policing state legislative action on the Elections Clause, a standard that (as Derek points out here) very much resembles the standard offered by Chief Justice Rehnquist over two decades ago in Bush v. Gore. In some ways, this standard is Roberts’ attempt to make sure that “legislature” means “legislature” as much as he possibly can without explicitly running afoul of Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission while staying true to the text of the Elections Clause, which empowers the legislature to set the manner of federal elections. What this vague test – that “state courts may not transgress the ordinary bounds of judicial review” – actually means will almost certainly be a point of controversy in years to come. Policing whether state courts have crossed this line will keep federal courts in the business of overseeing federal elections for the foreseeable future, contrary to what Roberts had hoped to achieve in Rucho.

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