RALEIGH, NC (AP) – Headlines for Tuesday’s North Carolina primary include Republicans battling for an open seat in the U.S. Senate and candidates hoping to give the GOP a shot at veto-proof majorities in the Legislature .
Earning fewer fees but with equal long-term political significance is a contest that will shape the fall matchups for two seats on the state Supreme Court. At stake this year is whether the court remains majority Democratic or passes under Republican control, with ramifications for redistribution decisions and issues championed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
It’s a scene playing out across the country this year as the state judiciary races become increasingly politicized when it comes to issues like partisan gerrymandering, abortion and gun rights. Voters in 32 states will vote this year on state supreme court seats, which have become a magnet for spending by national advocacy groups.
About $97 million was spent on state Supreme Court elections in the 2019-2020 election cycle, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. Conservative groups and super-PACs have historically outperformed liberal-leaning organizations in state court races.
Spending and campaigning around the judicial races could intensify if the U.S. Supreme Court voted Roe v. Wade overturns, which a leaked draft opinion shows the judges are willing to do.
“State courts will be on the front lines of the battle over access to abortion,” said Doug Keith, attorney with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “These races…are likely to attain a prominence in some states that they never had before.”
Michigan is among the states where abortion could be a central factor in court cases this fall. One Democratic and one Republican judge are up for re-election in a court where Democrats hold a 4-3 majority. The races are technically bipartisan, although candidates are nominated by political parties.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is asking the state Supreme Court to recognize an abortion right in the state constitution. She also wants a near-total 1931 abortion ban, which would take effect if Roe is reversed, to be declared unconstitutional.
Michigan’s court seats are among the top priorities of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which plans to spend more than $5 million on state court races this year, a record for the group, spokesman Andrew Romeo said.
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 battles to set state legislative and congressional boundaries.
“People used to think redistribution was a 10-year struggle,” Romeo said. “Now it becomes a struggle in every election cycle because there are critical Supreme Court races in every election cycle that have an opportunity to affect the redistribution of districts.”
Left-wing groups, including the National Democratic Restricting Committee, are also getting involved, although the group declined to say how much it will invest in the races.
“We are already seeing Republicans attempting to manipulate the justice system against fairness, particularly in states like Ohio, North Carolina and Michigan, and we will oppose these attempts to threaten the independence of state courts,” said Kelly Burton, President of the committee. said in a statement.
The parties have fought bitterly over North Carolina’s redistribution since the previous post-census map set was drawn in 2010.
Tuesday voters will choose the Republican nominee for one of two seats on the ballot this fall, a race that is among several drawing outside money fueled by redistribution disputes. No area code is required for the second seat, as only one Democratic and one Republican candidate are running.
The court earlier this year struck down maps for Congress and the state legislature signed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. In its 4-3 decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court labeled the districts as illegal partisan gerrymanders. Lawmakers will get an opportunity to redraw the congressional map next year because the map used for this year’s election has been provisionally approved, giving Republicans additional motivation to try to unseat the two Democratic justices this year.
Gerrymandering isn’t the only reason this fall’s court races will be crucial for North Carolina Democrats, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. Losing those seats would also be detrimental to Cooper, especially if Republicans win veto-proof majorities in the Legislature, he said.
“It just puts more pressure on Democrats to try and keep those seats,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Republican State Committee targeted Democratic Judge Sam Ervin IV – whose grandfather presided over the US Senate Watergate hearings – with a complaint asking him to withdraw from the new counties case, as a verdict could have affected electoral rules this year if it is on the ballot. Ervin refused to back down.
Court of Appeals Judge April Wood, one of three candidates seeking the GOP nomination to unseat Ervin, said on her website that she is running in part to ensure “a constitutional, conservative majority” in the court. A campaign video of Trey Allen, one of her rivals, the Administrative Office of the Courts General Counsel, touts him as “the Conservative leader we need.” Greensboro attorney Victoria Prince is also running for Tuesday’s primary.
Another battleground is Ohio, where two Republicans on the state Supreme Court are defending their seats. A third race pits an incumbent Republican judiciary against an incumbent Democratic judiciary for the Chief Justice seat. Though Republicans have a narrow majority in the court, judges have repeatedly ruled 4-3 against redistributing cards drawn by a GOP commission.
Arkansas had some of the toughest Supreme Court races in the country in recent elections. Races for two seats this year could move the court further to the right, even though the seats are officially bipartisan. Justices Robin Wynne and Karen Baker have served in previous offices as Democrats and are facing challenges from candidates with ties to the Republican Party who are campaigning for their membership in the National Rifle Association.
Gunner DeLay, a district judge and former lawmaker who is challenging Baker, uses his campaign website to highlight his work in the legislature to limit abortion and to advertise his support of Arkansas Right to Life.
“I think we should drop the pretense,” he said. “My story is what it is.”
District Judge Chris Carnahan, a former executive director of the state Republican Party, and attorney David Sterling are the Republicans vying for Wynne’s seat.
Findings later this year could have implications for a congressional redistribution case. Lawsuits pending in federal court are challenging Republicans’ redrawing of a district in the Little Rock area that opponents say is diluting black voter influence. Opponents of the redistribution plan are fighting to bring one of the cases back to state court.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, a Little Rock Democrat who is black, said the politicization of court races upsets her, but she still hopes cases like the redistribution challenge could get a fair hearing.
“I don’t think my anger should be a reason to think the court won’t do its job easily,” 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 of Lansing, Michigan and Andrew Welsh-Huggins of Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.