Lawyers for the state want to delay any action on a lawsuit claiming the new congressional maps drawn by the Utah Legislature last year are illegal gerrymandering until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a controversial redistricting case from North Carolina. That means the suit could be in limbo until sometime next summer.
In March, a coalition of organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and several individuals filed suit claiming the congressional maps approved by the Republican-dominated legislature disenfranchised voters by splitting Salt Lake County into four pieces, evenly dividing up most of the state’s non-LDS population, which virtually guaranteed an all-Republican congressional delegation.
In a filing late last week, lawyers for the state said the court should hit the pause button on the lawsuit because the North Carolina case, known as Moore v. Harper, could significantly impact how the Utah case is decided.
Last year, a North Carolina state court struck down a congressional map drawn by the state legislature, ruling it gave Republican candidates an unfair advantage. Republican lawmakers appealed, arguing the Elections Clause in the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures nearly total power to determine how congressional elections are conducted, a legal argument known as the “independent state legislature” theory. Under that reasoning, legislatures could not be subject to oversight by state courts or constrained by state constitutions when addressing federal elections, which include redistricting. Only an act of Congress could overrule state lawmakers.
Critics warn that interpretation of the Constitution would radically alter federal elections, allowing state lawmakers to pass voter suppression measures or gerrymander political maps without checks or balances from state courts or governors. The theory could also enable state lawmakers to override the will of voters in federal elections.
Utah lawyers argue it would be premature to take action before the Supreme Court issues an opinion in Moore v. Harper since that case could render the Utah lawsuit irrelevant.
“A holding in favor of the petitioners in Moore would resolve most, if not all, issues in the present case, avoiding unnecessary, expensive, and time-consuming litigation,” the filing reads.
The filing argues that if the Moore decision favors North Carolina lawmakers, the Utah court would no longer have the authority to rule in the case.
Katie Wright, executive director of the anti-gerrymandering group Better Boundaries, said the state’s request to put the case on hold relied on a “fringe legal theory.”
“This is yet another attempt by the Legislature to silence the voice of the majority of Utahns, who voted for gerrymandering reform in 2018,” Wright said. “In this case, the facts are stacked against the legislature, so they would rather pull legal maneuvers than argue in court. Utahns deserve to live under fair maps and choose their own leaders, instead of politicians picking their voters.”
This is not the first attempt by the state to derail the case. In May, lawyers for the state argued the lawsuit should be thrown out because it was a political issue, not a matter that the legal system should decide.