The U.S. Supreme court upheld a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that violated the black letter, meaning clearly written, law. The U.S. Constitution gives states the power to oversee federal elections. The Pennsylvania state legislature passed a law that required mail-in ballots to be received by the evening of election day. The State Supreme Court unilaterally extended that deadline three days past election day, claiming the interest of fairness.
The State Supreme Court has no such power. The Republican Party of Pennsylvania filed suit over roughly 10,000 ballots that arrived after the deadline in the November election. There were not enough ballots to change the outcome for the state, but a ruling by the Supreme Court would have outlined which entity, the courts or the legislature, had authority.
The Supreme Court declined to take the case.
Three of the nine-member court’s six conservative justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – dissented from the decision not to hear the Pennsylvania case.
In his dissent, Thomas said the Supreme Court should resolve whether non-legislators, including elections officials and courts, have any power to set election rules, which runs contrary to the U.S. Constitution. Thomas said it was fortunate that the state high court’s ruling did not involve enough ballots to affect the election’s outcome.
“But we may not be so lucky in the future.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with the state’s Democratic Party and various Democratic officials and candidates who argued that an Election Day mail-in ballot receipt deadline would violate the state constitution’s guarantee of “free and equal” elections given the pandemic and warnings by the U.S. Postal Service over its ability to deliver ballots in time.
The state Republican Party intervened in the case to oppose the deadline extension. It argued that the state court usurped the Republican-controlled legislature’s authority in ordering the extension.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, told the justices in a filing that particularly given Trump’s repeated attempts to overturn the election result based on unfounded claims of voting fraud, “the court should not plunge itself into the political thicket by granting a case that will not affect the outcome of any election.”