Primaries highlight upcoming battles over state supreme courts

Primaries highlight upcoming battles over state supreme courts

North Carolina’s primary headlines on Tuesday include Republicans vying for an open US Senate seat and candidates hoping to give the GOP a chance at veto-proof majorities in the Legislature.

Getting less revenue, but with equal long-term political importance, is a race that will shape the fall contests for two seats on the state Supreme Court. At stake this year is whether the court remains majority Democrat or passes under Republican control, with consequences for redistricting decisions and issues championed by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper.

It’s a scene playing out across the country this year as state court disputes become increasingly politicized over issues like partisan manipulation, abortion and gun rights. Voters in 32 states this year will vote for the state Supreme Court seats, which have become a magnet for national interest group spending.

About $97 million was spent on state supreme court elections during the 2019-2020 election cycle, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Conservative groups and super PACs have historically spent more than liberal-leaning organizations on state court races.

Spending and campaigning around the legal disputes could intensify if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which a leaked draft opinion indicates the judges are prepared to do.

“State courts will be front and center in the fight for access to abortion,” said Doug Keith, attorney for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “These races … in some states will likely have a prominence they never had before.”

Michigan is among the states where abortion could be a central factor in legal disputes this fall. A Democratic and Republican judges run for re-election to a court where Democrats have a 4-3 majority. The contests are technically non-partisan, although candidates are nominated by political parties.

Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer is asking the state’s top court to recognize the right to abortion in the state constitution. She also wants to declare unconstitutional a near-total abortion ban from 1931 that would take effect if Roe were reversed.

Michigan court seats are among the top priorities of the state’s Republican Leadership Committee, which plans to spend more than $5 million this year on state court disputes, a record for the group, said spokesman Andrew Romeo.

The group’s other priorities include the races in North Carolina, as well as those in Illinois and Ohio — primarily to better position Republicans in struggles over establishing state legislative and congressional boundaries.

“People used to think redistricting was a 10-year struggle,” Romeo said. “Now it’s going to be a battle every election cycle because there are critical Supreme Court races every election cycle that have the ability to impact redistricting.”

Left groups, including the National Committee on Democratic Redistricting, are also getting involved, although the group has not said how much it will invest in the disputes.

“We are already seeing Republicans try to manipulate the justice system against justice, particularly in states like Ohio, North Carolina and Michigan, and we will fight these attempts to threaten the independence of state courts,” Kelly Burton, chairman of the committee, said. in a statement.

The parties have bitterly fought for redistricting in North Carolina since the previous set of maps was drawn up after the 2010 Census.

Voters on Tuesday will pick the Republican candidate for one of two seats on this fall’s ballot, a race that is among several that attract money from the outside fueled by redistricting disputes. No primary is needed for the second seat because only one Democratic candidate and one Republican are running.

Earlier this year, the court struck down maps for Congress and the state legislature that were drawn up by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. In its 4-3 decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court called the districts illegal partisan gerrymanders. Lawmakers will get a chance next year to redraw the map of Congress because the one used for this year’s election passed on an interim basis, giving Republicans added motivation to try to oust the two Democratic judges this year.

Gerrymandering isn’t the only reason this fall’s court battles will be crucial for North Carolina’s Democrats, said David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh. Losing those seats would also be detrimental to Cooper, especially if Republicans get veto-proof majorities in the legislature, he said.

“It just puts more pressure on Democrats to try to keep those (court) seats,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Republican state committee attacked Democratic Judge Sam Ervin IV – whose grandfather presided over the US Senate Watergate hearings – with an ad urging him to drop the redistricting case because a decision could have affected election rules. this year, when he’s at the polls. Ervin refused to refuse.

Court of Appeals Judge April Wood, one of three candidates seeking the GOP nomination to oust Ervin, said on her website that she is running in part to secure “a constitutional and conservative majority” in the court. A campaign video by one of his rivals, the Administrative Office of Court Counsel General Trey Allen, presents him as “the conservative leader we need.”

Another battleground is Ohio, where two Republicans on the state’s Supreme Court are defending their seats. A third contest pits a Republican justice and a Democratic justice against each other for the chief justice’s seat. Although Republicans have a narrow majority in the court, the judges repeatedly ruled 4-3 against redistricting maps drawn up by a GOP commission.

Arkansas has had some of the fiercest Supreme Court disputes in the country in recent elections. Racing for two seats this year could push the court even further to the right, even if the seats are officially non-partisan. Justices Robin Wynne and Karen Baker have served in previous positions as Democrats and are facing challenges from candidates with ties to the Republican Party promoting their membership in the National Rifle Association.

Gunner DeLay, a circuit judge and former state lawmaker challenging Baker, uses his campaign website to highlight his work in the Legislature to restrict abortion and publicize his endorsement of Arkansas Right to Life.

“I think we should drop the pretense,” he said. “My story is what it is”.

District Judge Chris Carnahan, former executive director of the state Republican Party, and attorney David Sterling are the Republicans vying for Wynne’s seat.

The results later this year could have implications for a congressional redistricting case. Lawsuits pending in federal court challenge Republicans’ redesign of a Little Rock-area district that opponents say dilute the influence of black voters. Opponents of the redistricting plan are fighting to take one of the cases back to state court.

Senator Joyce Elliott, a Little Rock Democrat who is black, said the politicization of court races irritates her, but she is still hopeful that cases like the redistricting case can get a fair hearing.

“I don’t think my anger should be a reason to assume the court won’t just do its job,” Elliott said. “I am depending on them to do their job and do it fairly.”


DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas. Associated Press writers David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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