Checks and balances. This fundamental principle in the U.S. Constitution set the long-term foundation for what is today’s United States of America. If one body of government overreaches in its authority – whether it be federal or state government – then there’s another branch of government that provides necessary accountability.
We see examples of this process unfold on an annual basis. The U.S. Congress can provide oversight hearings to the Office of the Presidency. Governors can veto legislation state governments pass during legislative sessions. And, the U.S. Supreme Court can provide judicial oversight to critical issues in our state and federal governments.
This checks and balances system is a core pillar of this country’s democracy, and without it, power and corruption can cause the entire democratic experiment to rot from the inside and out.
Enter Moore v. Harper.
Last December, The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a concept pushed by far-right extremists called the “independent state legislature” theory. Under this idea, state legislatures would have the unchecked authority to set their own federal election processes – including but not limited to drawing gerrymandered maps and establishing the state’s own set of electors required for the Electoral College in presidential elections.
In short, if the High Court ruled in favor of Moore, then state legislatures would have been able to override state courts when evaluating gerrymanders – effectively eliminating a core component of the all-important checks and balances system. If the Court had accepted the state legislative theory, it would have essentially allowed state legislatures to choose their own set of electors according to their partisan preferences. Political parties would be more beholden to their desire for power and influence than the will of voters.
Thankfully, American Democracy dodged a bullet this week when the Court rejected Moore by a 6-3 margin. This opinion came as a surprise by many – including many in Climate Cabinet Education – because of the Court’s conservative supermajority in place and its recent history of unraveling historic precedents set by the Court itself, including Waters of the United States protections (Sackett v. the EPA) and pollution regulations on power plants (West Virginia v. EPA). And, let’s not forget the Court’s unpopular decision to overturn Roe v. Wade too. At Climate Cabinet Education, we view this decision as more evidence that gerrymanders – and the theories floated to justify them – have become so extreme that even conservative Justices aren’t buying Republicans’ excuses for them.
The Court rightfully made the right call, but the moment once again put a spotlight to what is happening in state legislatures across the country. As Climate Cabinet has argued in its “Power Grab” report, Republicans are concentrating power in state legislatures – and are using that power to disenfranchise voters and prevent any tangible action on some of the most pressing issues facing this nation – including fighting the climate crisis. At the same time, extreme schools of thought like “independent state legislature” theory and dangerous court challenges like Moore v. Harper are originating in the states – in this case, North Carolina. This Supreme Court ruling could have devolved even more power to the states and eliminated key checks and balances on state legislatures.
Accepting the so-called “independent state legislature” theory would have ushered in a dangerous precedent that could have ultimately undone the democracy itself. Any issue would have been on the chopping block – including climate change.
The Supreme Court made the right call and the United States got lucky this time. This case only underscores why, at Climate Cabinet Education, we’re laser-focused on what’s happening in state legislatures: ground zero for climate and democracy. We hope you’ll continue to follow along.