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Campus professors reflect on Supreme Court, democracy

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With a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, campus professors discuss potential threats to voting rights in the United States.


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MARCH 12, 2023

Campus professors shared their perspectives on the U.S. Supreme Court and the potential risk factors it poses for American democracy, according to a recent campus news article.

The article discussed the conservative court’s previous and potential rulings concerning voting laws, race and religion. One of the focuses in the article was the Supreme Court’s stances on voting rights laws and gerrymandering cases, and the potential verdicts that could have far-reaching implications for democracy.

“Perhaps the most significant in terms of its implications for democracy is Merrill v. Milligan, which the Supreme Court is expected to rule on in the late spring or early summer,” said Charlotte Hill, interim director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at the Goldman School of Public Policy, in an email. “It is a real possibility, perhaps even likely, that the Court will rule in a way that severely erodes Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act—a provision that essentially prohibits racially discriminatory voting laws and congressional redistricting maps. Without a strong Section 2, it will be far harder to ensure that Black Americans and other voters of color have an equal opportunity to vote—and to then translate that vote into political power.”

The Democratic Policy Initiative works with pro-democracy policymakers and organizations to create, test and scale democracy interventions, Hill added. The goal is to support the democracy movement to ensure that there are fair, trustworthy elections and free political expression, and to promote racial justice and equitable representation.

Hill said research supports the idea that proportional representation results in moves toward equal representation for marginalized communities, which is important in the context of the court’s “ongoing assault” on the Voting Rights Act. She added that people who care about democracy should also care about enshrining minority voting protections, which is what the Democracy Policy Initiative’s work is doing.

“Political suppression and subversion, hyper-polarization, disinformation, racial-ethnic conflict, and public mistrust are here and getting worse,” Hill said. “There is a real need for evidence-based policy solutions that not only address these issues but can actually be implemented in a timely fashion—solutions that are rigorously tested and actionable.”

Another focus of the article was the independent legislature theory, which is relevant to a North Carolina gerrymandering case that campus scholars view as another threat to American democracy.

The idea of the theory is that certain parts of the Constitution say state legislatures should have the final word for election laws.  If the state legislatures’ laws are overruled or interpreted by the state’s supreme court, the Supreme Court can step in for the legislature and restore the law, according to assistant professor of law Emily Rong Zhang.

“You can imagine this becoming an issue in other areas that have come up relating to election laws,” Zhang said in an interview. “The state legislature passes a law again challenged in its own courts, and usually that is the end of the road. Now there potentially is this extra avenue for challenging what would be the final word of a state supreme court on the meaning of state law.”

She noted that this theory is relatively new, proposed by a set of litigants only recently. Zhang also added that there might not be a decision on this theory, as the current North Carolina case involving the state’s voting maps may be dismissed due to other factors that have come to light in the case.

Zhang emphasized that since the theory is still new, people are still guessing as to how this could impact democracy. She noted that these cases carry different implications for democracy based on whether individuals believe that the state legislature is right or wrong.

Hill also noted that the court is an “anti-democratic institution,” not only in the way that they have ruled against public opinion, like in the Dobbs case, but also in the way their verdicts enshrine minority rule and keep Black voters from having equal political play.

“It’s worth recognizing that the Supreme Court is an inherently conservative institution,” Hill said.  “Liberal judges have little power to create new laws and systems that benefit the public. But conservative, reactionary judges have ample power to strike down social programs created by elected officials. This biases policy toward the right.”

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MARCH 12, 2023