State Supreme Court races attract new attention and money amid redistricting fights

By Fredreka Schouten, CNN

Conservative groups plan to invest record sums this year to shape under-the-radar races in the state Supreme Court, after Republicans suffered setbacks in redistricting court battles in several key states.

Among the top targets: Ohio and North Carolina, where several Supreme Court seats are on the ballot and justices have thrown out cards that favor Republicans.

“People thought redistricting was once every 10 years, but now it’s a fight every cycle,” said Andrew Romeo, spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which backs the presidential candidates. GOP at the state level and is committed to increasing spending through its Justice Fairness Initiative. “Every cycle there are critical Supreme Court races that are going to impact the redistricting.”

The group said its spending will surpass its previous record of more than $5 million in those races, although Romeo declined to disclose a specific budget.

The growing investments are a “growing recognition of the power of these courts,” said Douglas Keith, an attorney at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice who follows the issue.

Justice on the Ballot

Redistricting battles — which can determine the balance of political power in the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures — have increasingly been fought at the state level, following the decision of the United States Supreme Court in 2019 that federal courts have no role in partisan policing gerrymandering.

State high courts could also serve as the next frontier in other high-stakes litigation, including abortion access in individual states if the U.S. Supreme Court undermines Roe v. Wade in her ruling on a Mississippi case she heard last December.

Thirty-eight states use elections to choose who sits in their highest courts. And this year, 87 — or a quarter of the nation’s 344 state Supreme Court seats — are on the ballot in 32 states, according to Ballotpedia.

Spending to influence these races has skyrocketed in recent years.

A report from the Brennan Center, co-authored by Keith earlier this year, found that state and national spending on such contests reached a record $97 million during the 2019-20 election cycle.

Outside groups pumped about $35 million into the races, and in two states — Michigan and Wisconsin — outspent the candidates themselves, according to the report. Nationally, conservative interest groups outspent liberal outside groups in 2020 court contests, the analysis found.

In these less publicized contests, Keith said, “deep-pocketed outside interest groups can really dominate and can change the whole conversation around an election with an amount (of spending) that may seem paltry if you’re talking about an election for the United States Senate. ”

Leaders of the Judicial Fairness Initiative have sought to rally conservative donors by exposing what they call a successful Democrats’ ‘pursuit until it’s blue’ strategy – spearheaded by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee founded by the former US Attorney General Eric Holder.

“Republicans risk an even worse fate in the 2030 redistricting process if we fail to increase the resources we are currently spending in state court races to keep pace with Democrats,” said Andrew Wynne, vice -president of the Judicial Fairness Initiative, in an earlier note. This year.

In a statement, NDRC President Kelly Burton said her group “will fight against any Republican attempts to rig the justice system for fairness and threaten the independence of state courts.”

Buckeye State Battles

In recent months, state supreme courts have played a central role in redistricting battles. On Friday, the conservative majority in the Wisconsin High Court adopted the Republican-drawn state legislative boundaries.

A day earlier, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the proposed state House and Senate maps for the fourth time.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican who has sat on the bench for two decades, joined Democrats on the Ohio high court in 4-3 decisions to reject the cards.

The Ohio Constitution now requires that the partisan composition of state legislative districts approximately reflect the voting preferences of Ohioans in statewide elections over the past decade. That split about 54% to 46% in favor of Republicans. But early maps drawn by the GOP majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission gave Republicans the chance to win lopsided majorities in the state legislature.

O’Connor’s votes angered Republicans, with some GOP politicians asking for his dismissal.

O’Connor is retiring at the end of this year to comply with state age limits for judges, and a race is underway between Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner and Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy to succeed him.

Two other Ohio Supreme Court Republicans are also up for re-election this year.

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce has already set a goal of raising $4 million to shape Ohio’s high court contests, doubling what it has spent on those races in recent election cycles. .

House CEO Steve Stivers said business-related concerns, such as potential changes to state liability laws, rather than redistricting, drive the group’s interests in High Court races .

Judges are currently weighing whether to strike down an Ohio law that caps the damages that plaintiffs in civil cases can be awarded for pain and suffering.

“We want a lot of businesses to come here, and we want existing small businesses to invest in their business and grow, and you can only do that when you have a legal structure you can rely on,” Stivers said. , a former GOP. congressman.

“We have a pro-business majority … in the State House and State Senate. We have a pro-business governor,” he added. “But if we have the four wrong people on the Supreme Court, we could back off every day.”

The Ohio GOP may have another advantage in November: Under a new state law, the party affiliation of Supreme Court nominees will appear on the ballot in a Republican-leaning state.

Other state confrontations

Republicans are also seeking to overturn control of supreme courts in several other key states.

In North Carolina, Democrats now hold a 4-3 advantage over the state high court. That court struck down Republican-drawn maps of Congress that it said gave the GOP an unfair advantage, and a state trial court imposed a map that was drawn by court-appointed experts.

The court-drawn map offers more opportunities for Democrats to win seats, but it is only expected to be in effect for the 2022 election.

If Republicans take control of the North Carolina Supreme Court and retain their majority in the state legislature, the GOP would be able to draw maps that will be used in 2024 and beyond.

The terms of two North Carolina Democratic judges — Sam Ervin and Robin Hudson — expire this year. Ervin, who has previously been targeted by ads from the Judicial Fairness Initiative, is running for re-election.

Other states catching Republicans’ attention include Michigan, where two members of the seven-member court are being re-elected, and Illinois, where four of the seven seats will be decided this year.

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