Primaries highlight upcoming battles over state supreme courts

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The headliners for Tuesday’s North Carolina primary include Republicans vying for an open seat in the U.S. Senate and candidates hoping to give the GOP a shot at majorities without veto in the Legislative Assembly.

Obtaining less billing, but with equal long-term political significance, is a contest that will shape the fall contests for two seats on the state Supreme Court. At stake this year is whether the court remains Democratic-majority or moves to Republican control, with consequences for redistricting decisions and issues championed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

It’s a scene playing out across the country this year, as state court races become increasingly politicized on issues such as partisan gerrymandering, abortion and gun rights. This year, voters in 32 states will vote on state Supreme Court seats, which have become a magnet for spending by national interest groups.

Some $97 million was spent on state Supreme Court elections in the 2019-20 election cycle, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. Conservative groups and super PACs have historically outspent liberal-leaning organizations in state court races.

Spending and campaigning around court races could ramp up if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which a leaked draft notice indicates the judges are prepared to do.

“State courts are going to be front and center in the fight for abortion access,” said Doug Keith, attorney at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “These races…in some states are probably going to take on a significance that they never have before.”

Michigan is among the states where abortion could be a central factor in court races this fall. A Democratic judge and a Republican judge are up for re-election to a court where Democrats hold a 4-3 majority. The races are technically nonpartisan, although the candidates are nominated by political parties.

Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer is asking the state High Court to recognize a right to abortion in the state Constitution. She also wants him to declare unconstitutional a near-total 1931 abortion ban that would go into effect if Roe were overturned.

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

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

“People thought the redistricting was a 10-year fight,” Romeo said. “Now it will be a battle in every election cycle, as there are critical Supreme Court races in every election cycle that have the ability to impact redistricting.”

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

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

The parties have fought hard for redistricting in North Carolina since the previous set of maps was drawn following the 2010 census.

On Tuesday, voters will choose the Republican nominee for one of two seats on the ballot this fall, a race that is part of several draw-outs fueled by redistricting disputes. No primary is needed for the second seat because only one Democratic candidate and one Republican candidate are running.

Earlier this year, the court struck down maps of Congress and the state legislature that were drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. In its 4-3 decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court called the districts illegal partisan gerrymanders. Lawmakers will have a chance next year to redraw the map of Congress as the one used for this year’s election was approved on a provisional basis, giving Republicans additional motivation to try to unseat the two Democratic justices this year.

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

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

Earlier this year, the Republican State Committee targeted Democratic Judge Sam Ervin IV – whose grandfather presided over Watergate hearings in the US Senate – with an announcement calling on him to step down from the redistricting case. because a decision could have affected the rules of the elections. this year when he’s on the ballot. Ervin refused to recuse himself.

Appeals Court Judge April Wood, one of three candidates for the GOP nomination to unseat Ervin, said on her website that she was running in part to ensure “a constitutional and conservative majority” in the yard. A campaign video from one of his rivals, the Administrative Office of General Counsel of the Courts Trey Allen, portrays him as “the Tory leader we need”. Greensboro attorney Victoria Prince is also a candidate in Tuesday’s primary.

Another battleground is Ohio, where two state Supreme Court Republicans are defending their seats. A third race is between a sitting Republican judge and a sitting Democratic judge for the seat of chief justice. Although Republicans hold a slim majority on the court, justices have repeatedly ruled 4-3 against redistricting maps drawn by a GOP commission.

Arkansas has had some of the most acrimonious Supreme Court races in the nation in the last election. Races for two seats this year could push the court further to the right, even if the seats are officially nonpartisan. Justices Robin Wynne and Karen Baker have held previous positions as Democrats and are facing challenges from candidates with Republican Party ties promoting their membership in the National Rifle Association.

Gunner DeLay, circuit judge and former Baker-defying state legislator, uses his campaign website to highlight his work in the Legislature to restrict abortion and tout his endorsement of the Arkansas Right to Life.

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

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

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

Senator Joyce Elliott, a Democrat from Little Rock who is black, said the politicization of court races angers her, but she still holds out hope that cases such as the redistricting challenge 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 rely 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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