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Over the next year, state courts across the country will weigh in on abortion rights, redistricting and voting access.
Unlike United States Supreme Court justices, who are appointed, many state Supreme Court justices have just gone through an election. Midterms have brought few reshuffles, but GOP victories in Ohio and the North Carolina Supreme Court are driving changes in the legal landscape in those states.
Going forward, here’s how these victories will influence political decisions in the state, as well as the balance of power in Washington.
Ohio traded a swing chief justice for a conservative
This year, Ohioans re-elected three Republican justices to the state Supreme Court, beating Democratic opponents.
It’s the bench that will likely hear a challenge to Ohio’s six-week abortion ban, as well as disputes over the state’s voting cards.
While the GOP will retain its majority, who presides will change.
With Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor over the age limit to run again, voters chose another Republican, Justice Sharon Kennedy, to replace her.
In an already conservative panel, “Judge Kennedy was perhaps the most conservative,” says Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Entin.
Kennedy, a former police officer and administrative judge, has been on the bench since 2012. In 2017, she spoke at an event hosted by an anti-abortion rights group just as the panel heard a case on closing or not. an abortion clinic.
“It’s still morning in the Supreme Court of Ohio,” Kennedy told supporters gathered at the GOP election party in Columbus.
Ohio voters also re-elected Republican Associate Justices Mark Fischer and Pat DeWine, son of Gov. Mike DeWine. Governor DeWine, also a Republican, will be able to appoint a judge to the court, occupying O’Connor’s seat.
On redistricting, Ohioans approved two constitutional amendments, in 2015 and 2018, to update the district redistricting process to be more bipartisan and less likely to favor one political party over another. .
However, Republican officials continued to control the map-drawing process. As a result, O’Connor, the outgoing chief justice, sided with the Democrats and rejected proposed cards five times to unfairly advantage Republicans.
With the new bench, GOP lawmakers can get those cards after all.
“It’s pretty clear that elected officials, at least elected Republicans, have been waiting for the court to come out,” Entin said.
With higher stakes, state Supreme Court races are more expensive and overtly partisan
The redistricting power is just one example of the influence wielded by state supreme courts. These maps not only determine which party controls the state legislature, but also how many Democrats and Republicans the states are likely to send to Congress.
With slim margins in the U.S. House of Representatives, “these courts have significant power, especially right now, to determine how our federal government operates, not just state government,” says attorney Douglas Keith. at the Brennan Center for Justice. Between Ohio and North Carolina, 29 congressional districts are at stake. The Brennan Center is representing some of the plaintiffs in Ohio’s redistricting litigation.
At the same time, contests for control of these courts have attracted greater spending and, in some cases, have become more explicitly partisan.
For example, these midterm voters in Ohio saw a “D” or an “R” next to a justice candidate’s name on the ballot, thanks to a 2021 law passed by the GOP-led legislature.
Funding has also swelled. State court races used to be “pretty sleepy,” Keith says, attracting donations mostly from interest groups within the state. In recent years, campaign funding by national political groups and PACs has increased.
The Republican state leadership committee attributes the “clean sweep” in Ohio and North Carolina to the group’s judicial campaign spending effort, called the Judicial Fairness Initiative. The Initiative’s goal is “to ensure that future redistricting fights in these states are led by strong conservatives,” an RSLC spokesperson said in a statement.
Democrats, Republicans, and PACs have spent big in Illinois, where Democrats have managed to secure open seats and maintain their majority in the field.
The accounting is not final for the 2022 races, but some states have already broken their previous records this cycle, says Keith. In the 2020 election, state Supreme Court contests attracted $97 million, making it the most expensive round yet, according to a report from the Brennan Center.
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Partisan control of the North Carolina State Supreme Court has changed
North Carolina has seen the state’s biggest midterm Supreme Court reversal, going from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority.
Once they are seated, this new bench could hear the cases on the state’s electoral district maps, as well as education funding and abortion rights.
The vast majority of those rulings have no partisan slant, said former North Carolina State Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds, a Republican. In recent years, however, changes outside and inside the court have made it more overtly politicized.
“This year [North Carolina] judges in some of their writings accused each other of making decisions based on political affiliation,” Edmunds explains, adding that this is “not usual.”
A fight against partisan gerrymandering in the state is ongoing. North Carolina must redraw its congressional map by 2024. Edmunds is a special master, or court-called outside expert, on redistricting. But beyond that, the judges could dramatically upend the state’s voting requirements, he says.
North Carolina has several voting access cases making their way through state and federal courts, such as NC NAACP vs. Moore.
Edmunds says changing when, how and where people vote “hits home in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect, because it’s so fundamental to how we see ourselves as voters. Americans”.
Andy Chow of the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau contributed to this story.