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Supreme Court made a decision that could protect the integrity of the 2024 election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States Supreme Court has rejected an argument that might have altered the balance of power in this country. Today's ruling centered on who has power over partisan election maps, you know, those maps that are used to draw congressional districts and state legislative districts. North Carolina's legislature drew election districts that seemed likely to elect extra Republicans. The state Supreme Court said that was unfair, and that is why Republicans sued in the U.S. Supreme Court, saying state courts had no role to play. Supreme Court said they do have a role. So let's discuss this with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, good morning.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did Republican legislators get the idea that they could go around the courts?

TOTENBERG: Well, they cite the constitutional provision that says the time, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof. And they interpreted that to mean us and nobody else. And the Supreme Court today said, no, everybody gets to participate in this. And we have held this for years. We've upheld, for example - we've upheld gubernatorial vetoes of election maps. We've upheld other election maps. Yes, the state legislature is a very important player, but it's not the only player.

And Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the court, cited, to begin with, Marbury v. Madison. And the greatest chief justice of all time - I think everybody in the United States of who sort of focuses on the law would agree that was John Marshall. And Marbury v. Madison is sort of the keystone of the court's power. And he said - chief - the chief justice said under the maximalist interpretation of the state legislatures theory, everybody else, including the courts, is cut out of the process. And courts have an important role to play, he said. And - but he did not completely reject the idea that legislatures may trump courts in some instances. He sort of adopted a compromise position that said - here's what he said. He said...

INSKEEP: OK.

TOTENBERG: He said, state supreme courts - this is their job, to oversee election laws, rules, etc. But if they interpret those state laws or the state constitution in patently unreasonable way, then the legislature has the right to come calling to the federal courts, asking for help. And here's the hitch. He didn't elucidate a standard. He said, we don't have to do that today. But we are saying that there is a limit to what state supreme courts can do. And...

INSKEEP: This was...

TOTENBERG: Yeah, go ahead.

INSKEEP: This was pretty decisively beaten back. It was a 6-3 majority saying, no, you cannot as a state legislature do whatever you want without review of state courts. The three who dissented, as I understand it, seemed to focus on the question of whether the court should've been hearing the case at all rather than really getting too much into the substance. The court beat this back. But it's interesting in that case, Nina, that they decided to take the case in the first place. They felt there was something interesting here that they needed to weigh in on. What has made this such an important cause among some Republicans that the court seems to have felt they needed to give an opinion one way or the other.

TOTENBERG: Well, we had such a mess in 2020, and the courts were involved in it all the time. And I think the court clearly felt that they needed to at least set some guidelines. The unfortunate thing, of course, is that the guidelines are very amorphous, as the specific guidelines don't exist. And that's going to be an important factor in 2024.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, we'll continue covering this. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, thanks so much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.