Republicans have claimed major victories in state Supreme Court races that will give them an edge in major redistricting battles, while Democrats have scored similarly major victories with the help of groups focused on advocating for abortion access.
Costly battles over control of courts in several states in Tuesday’s elections underscore how partisan the formerly low-key judicial races have become. Observers say they are a sign of what to expect as legal battles over abortion, voting rights and other issues play out at the state level.
“Nothing about this election suggests to me that we’re going to see these races quiet down any time soon,” said Douglas Keith, a consultant at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which tracks spending in judicial races.
About $97 million was spent on state Supreme Court elections in the 2019-2020 election cycle, according to the Brennan Center. Once this year’s numbers are tallied, spending records are expected to be broken in some of the 25 states that had races targeted by groups on the right and the left.
One of the biggest players was the Republican State Leadership Committee, which focused heavily on court races in North Carolina and Ohio.
“Republican victories in the Tarheel State and the Buckeye State ensure that the redistricting battles that will follow in these states over the next decade will be led by strong conservatives who will follow the Constitution and do not believe it is their role to draw maps from the bench. ». said Dee Duncan, chair of the Commission’s Justice Initiative.
The North Carolina court switched from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority Tuesday night. The court in recent years has ruled in favor of the Democratic majority in cases involving redistricting, criminal justice, education funding and voter laws.
At least $15 million was spent on those fights, with more than $8 million from two super PACS — one on the left focused primarily on abortion and one on the right focused on crime. Despite the involvement of outside groups, the candidates ran on a similar platform keeping personal politics out of the courtroom.
“Now, we’re going to be watching to make sure that the judges who sit in those seats keep those promises,” said Ann Webb, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
In Ohio, Republicans maintained their 4-3 majority on the court, with two GOP justices fending off challenges and a Republican incumbent winning her nomination for the top justice. The state’s GOP governor, Mike DeWine, will appoint a judge to fill the resulting vacancy.
The results could further stretch the court’s conservative bent, with cases on the state’s six-week abortion ban and redistricting on the horizon. Republican Justice Maureen O’Connor, who did not seek re-election, sided with the court’s three Democrats in high-profile cases.
But Democratic groups working to protect abortion rights stepped up efforts to defend the seats after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and saw victories in many other parts of the country.
In Illinois, which is surrounded by states with abortion bans that took effect after Roe was overturned, groups pushing to preserve the state’s Democratic court majority had warned that a GOP takeover could lead to similar threats to access.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t think abortion was the critical issue in these races,” said Terry Cosgrove, president and CEO of Personal PAC, an abortion-rights group that has spent nearly $3 million on supporting Democrats in the races.
In Michigan, Democrats retained their 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court after incumbent justices from rival parties who were split on a key abortion decision won re-election. Michigan’s supreme court races are officially nonpartisan, although the state’s political parties nominate candidates.
Democratic-backed Justice Richard Bernstein, who voted with the court’s majority to put an abortion rights amendment on the ballot, won re-election with Republican Justice Brian Zahra, who voted against it. Voters approved the measure on Tuesday.
“The Michigan Supreme Court election was critical, especially because we didn’t know what the status of the (abortion rights amendment) would be,” said Ashlea Phenicie, director of communications for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, which spent nearly 1 million dollars in the races. .
Kansas voters kept all six state Supreme Court justices on the ballot for separate yes-or-no votes on whether to keep them on the bench for another six years. The state’s most prominent anti-abortion group, Kansans for Life, pushed to remove five of them, largely because of a 2019 court ruling that declared access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the Kansas Constitution.
Two of the court’s six members on the ballot were part of the 6-1 majority in that 2019 decision. Voters also retained the court’s most conservative member, the lone dissenter in the 2019 abortion decision.
Republican bids for judicial seats have failed even in some of the most conservative parts of the country.
Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Michelle Keller defeated Joseph Fischer, a Republican lawmaker who supported the state’s “trigger law” to end abortion after Roe was overturned. Fisher was also the lead sponsor of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment that voters rejected on Tuesday.
Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne in Arkansas, which has had some of the most contentious judicial races in years, fended off a challenge from District Judge Chris Carnahan, the former executive director of the state Republican Party.
Arkansas courts are nonpartisan, but Carnahan had promoted himself as a conservative and had the support of the state’s Democratic Party. A group formed by a Republican lawmaker ran television ads calling Wynne, who served as a Democrat in the state legislature in the 1980s, a liberal.
An unprecedented partisan effort by Montana Republicans to install a party loyalist on that state’s Supreme Court also failed, with Justice Ingrid Gustafson defeating challenger James Brown, who had the support of Gov. Greg Gianforte and other top Republicans. The unusually expensive campaign came as the court prepares to hear challenges to Montana’s abortion restrictions and voting access.
Gustafson called her victory a sign that voters care more about experience than ideology.
“People in Montana think our judiciary is doing a good job, and it’s a very, very small minority that has some kind of other agenda,” he said.
Associated Press writers Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina. John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas. Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed White in Detroit, Michigan. and Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana contributed to this report. ___ Follow AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors playing out in the midterms.