If the court upholds the rogue ‘Independent State Legislature’ theory, it would put the US squarely on the path to authoritarianism
It is well-known that intense competition between democracy, authoritarianism and fascism is playing out across the globe in a variety of ways – including in the United States. This year’s US supreme court term, which started this week, is a vivid illustration of how the situation is actually worse than most people understand.
A supermajority of six, unelected ultraconservatives justice – five of which were put on the bench by presidents who did not win the popular vote – have aggressively grabbed yet another batch of cases that will allow them to move American law to the extreme right and threaten US democracy in the process. The leading example of this disturbing shift is a little-known case called Moore v Harper, which could lock in rightwing control of the United States for generations.
The heart of the Moore case is a formerly fringe legal notion called the Independent State Legislature (ISL) theory. This theory posits that an obscure provision in the US constitution allowing state legislatures to set “time, place, and manner” rules for federal elections should not be subject to judicial oversight. In other words, state legislatures should have the absolute power to determine how federal elections are run without court interference.
Think about this theory in the context of the last US election. After Joseph Biden defeated Donald Trump resoundingly in both the popular vote and in the electoral college, Trump tried to organize a massive intimidation campaign to steal the election which played out in the storming of the Capitol building on 6 January. But behind the scenes, the legal core of this attempt was to convince the many Republican-controlled state legislatures (30 out of 50 states) to send slates of fake Trump electors from states like Arizona, Georgia and Michigan where Trump actually lost the popular vote.
If Trump had succeeded, he would have “won” the election via the electoral college (itself an anti-democratic relic) and been able to stay in office another term. If the supreme court buys the theory in the Moore case, this could easily happen in 2024 and beyond. In fact, it is possible Republicans will never lose another election again if this theory is adopted as law. Or put another way, whether Republicans win or lose elections via the popular vote will not matter because they will be able to maintain power regardless.
That’s not democracy. And it would put the United States squarely in the same category as authoritarian countries with illiberal leaders like Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Russia. Each of the leaders of those countries ostensibly “won” elections that were structurally rigged to virtually guarantee they could not lose.
It is disturbing that the supreme court used its increasingly diminished credibility with the public to take on a case that has no real purpose other than what I am describing in this column. In the United States, our highest court only rules on approximately 70 cases a year out of the 7,000 petitions for review that are presented. It is a relatively lazy court. In contrast, the supreme court of Brazil rules on approximately 100,000 cases a year. If the US court agreed to accept the Moore case for review, it almost certainly plans to endorse this rogue ISL theory, that could blow up elections and democracy in the United States as we know it.