The Independent State Legislature Doctrine as indirect power. by Gerardo Muñoz

This Wednesday the Supreme Court of the United States will consider arguments in Moore v. Harper, coming out of the North Carolina State Legislature, which revolves around a specific doctrine: the Independent State Legislature. When the legislature of North Carolina tried to pass a new redrawing district boundaries for electoral purposes, the state supreme court decided against it, concluding that the map violated provisions of the constitution affecting free elections and the equal protection clause of the federal constitution. On other hand, the sponsors of the Independent State doctrine claim that state legislatures enjoy unsubordinated independence from the state supreme court, acting freely from the structure of state constitutions. The defenders of ISL doctrine “interpret” the term legislature as free-floating affirmation of constituent power when it comes to matters of voting under Election Clause of Article I in which legislatures decide on “the times, places, and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives”. Hence, ISL doctrine is fundamentally about political-theological question of ‘who decides?’ (quis judicabit) in the structure of federalism. But insofar as it is the question of ‘who decides’ it is also about what orients application today: ‘who interprets?’

When legal practice becomes open to interpretation each word immediately becomes a door. Each term becomes contested meaning as a free-floating signifier where balancing will ultimately serve particular political purposes. It is no coincide this ISL doctrine has come to the surface at this precise moment – after the 2020 election results – when, in fact, for most of the history it has been rarely used [1]. What does a floating and independent legislature power entail for electoral ends? What is of interest here is precisely how, in the name of a direct justification of constituent power (‘The People’), ISL represents a truly indirect power within the structure of federalism and state-constitutions. By name and function, indirect powers are understood as external interreference within a structure of stable organized powers. Now, the novelty of the ISL doctrine is that this indirect power emerges from within as it were, capable of upending judicial review and constitutional authority. The stability of ‘who will decide’ becomes an indirect power that, potentially, could even override state elections wherever political asymmetries exist between the legislature, governorship, and judges at the courts.

We know from the history of political thought that indirect powers (the undecidability of who will decide) leads to a stasiazon or internal civil war between the constituted powers. In other words, it is with the ISL doctrine that we can now see the true nature of what I called in the beginning of 2021 a legal civil war in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results. A legal civil war is far more intense than the political partisan struggle of the movement – even if, at times, they can both cooperate as joint partners – since indirect force tries to ambush the constitutional organization of powers. The legal civil war of direct democracy comes full circle: unmitigated legislative force will constitute itself as the unstrained guardian of the question ‘who will decide’. For the champions of ISL doctrine legislature has no penumbra: it is always “We”. And it is no coincide that, as it has been shown by one of the great scholars of American federalism, a legislative supremacy once defended by Madison could allow for the “raising of every conflict to a constitutional crisis and civil war” [2].

In other words, what at first sight appears as total independence at state level actually facilitates its oppositum: the production of “standing” for higher courts litigation. Contrary to common opinion, the function of constitutional interpretation is full of cracks due to its brittle fabric: it allows for the indirect powers to be justified vis-à-vis the naturalism of the People as ‘original electors’ without mediations [3]. The historical irony cannot escape us at this point, since the American Revolution was waged against a legislature (the British Parliament) and legitimized through broad voting. This was the great innovation of Atlantic republican political theory. The question is whether a constitutional ‘interpretation’ could wage a battle against indirect powers facilitated by the revolutionary penumbra of ‘who will decide?’.

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Notes 

1. “Brief of Amici Curiae Professors Akhil Amar, Vikram Amar, and Steven Calabresi in Support of Respondents”, October 24, 2022: https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/21/21-1271/243761/20221024133404048_21-1271%20Amicus%20Brief.pdf  

2. Alison LaCroix. “What If Madison Had Won? Imagining a Constitutional World of Legislative Supremacy,” Indiana Law Review 45 (2012):

3. Carl Schmitt. The Value of the State and the Significance of the Individual, Vinx & Zeitlin eds, (Cambridge U Press, 2021), 231. 

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