CHICAGO (AP) — EDITORS/NEWS DIRECTORS:
With about two-thirds of states preparing for state supreme court elections next year, Democrats and Republicans alike are acknowledging the increasingly vital role of state’s high courts in deciding hot-button issues of the day, from abortion to redistricting.
Voters will cast their ballots for over 80 seats in 33 states. Key states to watch include Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio, but experts say the elections will be consequential in a wide range of states.
“It’s often been the case that people don’t pay enough attention to judicial races including state supreme courts,” said Jessie Hill, law professor at Case Western Reserve University and a consultant for Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights. “But I do think there’s a new class of voters that are really paying attention to these issues and see how much huge issues like abortion and gerrymandering are at stake in these elections.”
“State supreme courts decide on so many of the things that affect people’s lives day-to-day,” she added.
READ AP’S ARTICLE
MAJOR THEMES IN 2024 RACES:
After Roe v. Wade, which once granted a federal right to abortion, was overturned in 2022, the abortion debate shifted to the states, where state supreme courts have become vital in interpreting abortion restrictions and protections for reproductive rights in state constitutions. As a result, state supreme court races have ballooned in attention and price tag.
The ACLU is watching cases challenging abortion restrictions in Wyoming, Kentucky, Ohio, Utah, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, Georgia and Montana, where consequential state supreme court races are brewing. Meanwhile, 38 cases have been filed challenging abortion bans in 23 states as of Nov. 17, 2023, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Many of those cases are expected to wind up before state supreme courts.
Redistricting may play a large role in races in North Carolina, Kentucky and especially Ohio. The Republican State Leadership Committee, one of the biggest players in recent races, has said in recent years that its focus is on redistricting.
Voting rights, prosecutorial discretion, minimum wage and environmental issues may also play a role in upcoming races.
In Michigan, where Democrats currently hold a 4-3 majority on the state’s high court and two incumbents are up for election, cases that may land in justices’ laps include one over a Republican legislative maneuver that gutted a minimum wage hike and another that involves Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ambitious clean energy goals.
THIS YEAR’S RACES
This year saw sparse high court contests in only Wisconsin and North Carolina. Democrats scored a key victory in Wisconsin by flipping the high court’s conservative majority for the first time in 15 years after a campaign that shattered previous national records for spending in state supreme court elections. In Pennsylvania, Democrats added to their majority on the court in a high-stakes race with tens of millions of dollars in spending. Abortion played a key role in the races.
The races offer a preview of what to expect in several key judicial races in 2024 and have prompted groups to look at investing in states that may not have been considered battlegrounds before.
A STATE-BY-STATE BREAKDOWN:
Five seats are up for partisan election on the Alabama Supreme Court, where all current justices are Republican. The election is unlikely to significantly shift the ideological balance of the court.
Two of five seats are up for retention election on the Alaska Supreme Court, where all but one of the current justices were appointed by Republican governors. The election is unlikely to significantly shift the ideological balance of the court.
Two of seven seats are up for retention election on the Arizona Supreme Court, where all current justices were appointed by Republican governors. The election is unlikely to significantly shift the ideological balance of the court.
There are two contested races for the Arkansas Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 4-3 majority. The races include an open seat for chief justices, which has drawn three sitting justices. The election is not expected to shift the ideological balance of the court.
Three of seven seats are up for retention election on the Colorado Supreme Court, where all current justices were appointed by Democrat governors. The election is unlikely to significantly shift the ideological balance of the court.
Two of seven seats are up for retention election on the Florida Supreme Court, where all current justices were appointed by Republican governors. The election is unlikely to significantly shift the ideological balance of the court.
Four seats will be on the ballot in Georgia, where seriously contested judicial elections are quite rare. The four incumbents all have active campaign fundraising committees while no one else has registered a committee to run for state supreme court, likely indicating that all four could run for re-election unopposed. Abortion rights, tort reform and the ability to discipline prosecutors will be issues that could fall into justices’ laps in the next few years
One of five seats is up for nonpartisan election on the Idaho Supreme Court.
Two of seven seats is up for partisan election on the Illinois Supreme Court, where five current justices are Democrats and two are Republicans. The incumbents for 2024 include liberal justice Joy Cunningham and conservative justice Lisa Holder White.
Three of five seats is up for retention election on the Indiana Supreme Court, where all current justices have been appointed by Republican governors.
One of seven seats is up for retention election on the Iowa Supreme Court, where all current justices have been appointed by Republican governors.
One seat is up for nonpartisan election in Kentucky after Chief Justice Laurance B. VanMeter announced he won’t seek reelection next year. The contest to succeed him is not expected to alter the ideological balance of the court.
One seat — that of conservative justice Scott Crichton — is up for partisan election on the Louisiana Supreme Court, where five current justices are Republicans, one is a Democrat and one is an independent.
Three of seven seats are up for retention election on the Maryland Supreme Court, where all but one was appointed by former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.
Two incumbents — one Democrat, one Republican — will be up for election in 2024 on the Michigan Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a 4-3 majority. Candidates run without political affiliations listed on the ballot, though they’re nominated by political parties.
Four seats will be on the ballot in a nonpartisan election in Minnesota, where five of the seven current justices were appointed to the high court by Democratic governors and two were appointed by a Republican governor.
Four seats are up for nonpartisan election on the Mississippi Supreme Court.
One of seven seats is up for retention election on the Missouri Supreme Court, where all but two current justices have been appointed by Republican governors.
Two of the seven seats on the Montana Supreme Court are on the ballot, including an open race for chief justice. The liberal leaning court is expected to be a battleground over culture wars issues, including restrictions on transgender youth and abortion.
One of seven seats is up for retention election on the Nebraska Supreme Court, where all but one current justices have been appointed by Republican governors.
Three seats will be on the ballot in Nevada, where recent decisions, including unanimously ruling that citizens who’ve been subject to wrongful searches have the right to sue, have indicated a moderate liberal lean. Nevadans for Reproductive Rights plan to appeal a district court ruling that struck down an attempt to get abortion rights enshrined into the state constitution on the 2024 ballot. As a result, abortion rights may be a major focus in the election.
One of five seats on the New Mexico Supreme Court is up for retention election. All of the justices on the court are Democrats.
One seat will be on the ballot in North Carolina, where Republicans hold five of the seven seats and barring resignations or deaths on the court are assured a GOP majority through 2028.
Public school funding and the governor’s power to make appointments to key boards and commissions will likely be major issues that will fall before the court.
The 2024 race is not expected to be as attention-grabbing as 2022, when two races determined the ideological balance of the court. In 2022, candidates and outside groups spent several million dollars for or against candidates in two Supreme Court races that were won by Republicans, giving the GOP the court’s majority for the first time since 2016. The court’s flip led to dramatic reversals in 2023 on rulings made by the previous Democratic majority that had struck down a 2018 photo voter identification law and redistricting maps for the General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegation.
With three seats up for a vote and a current Republican majority of 4-3, Democrats have an opportunity to flip the Ohio Supreme Court while Republicans vie to expand their majority.
Democrats hope the races will be an extension of the victory abortion rights proponents won in 2023 to enshrine a right to abortion in the state constitution. The state has more than 30 abortion restrictions in place, an undetermined number of which could be challenged as a result of the passage of the November ballot measure.
Experts say the state’s high court will be the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the new constitutional amendment, and the 2024 state supreme court election will be another test of the salience of the abortion issue in turning out voters. Redistricting may also be a main focus, given the court has realigned politically since it issued a series of rulings finding Ohio’s congressional and legislative maps unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans.
Also impacting the landscape in Ohio is a 2021 rule change requiring judicial candidates to run with party labels on the ballot, which experts say may favor conservatives in the Republican-leaning state. A Democratic justice, Jennifer Brunner, has challenged the policy in a lawsuit.
Three Oklahoma Supreme Court justices, all of whom were initially appointed to the court by Democratic governors, will face retention elections in 2024.
Five of seven state supreme court justices in Oregon are running in 2024 to keep their seats. While the statewide races are nonpartisan, all justices on the court were appointed by Democratic governors.
All of the state supreme court candidates — except for one, who will be seeking election for the first time — won their most recent judicial elections with commanding majorities, most having run unopposed.
Among the important cases before the state supreme court is a lawsuit filed by Republican state senators challenging a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2022 that bars lawmakers from seeking reelection if they have 10 or more unexcused absences. The legislators each racked up more than 10 absences during a six-week GOP walkout during the 2023 legislative session that stalled hundreds of bills.
One of five seats is up for retention election on the South Dakota Supreme Court, where all current justices have been appointed by Republican governors. The election is unlikely to significantly shift the ideological balance of the court.
One of five seats is up for retention election on the Tennessee Supreme Court, where all current justices have been appointed by Republican governors. The election is unlikely to significantly shift the ideological balance of the court.
Three of the nine seats on the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court are up for election.
One of five seats is up for retention election on the Utah Supreme Court, where all current justices have been appointed by a Republican governor. The election is unlikely to significantly shift the ideological balance of the court.
Three of nine seats are up for nonpartisan election on the Washington Supreme Court.
Two seats will be on the ballot in a nonpartisan election in West Virginia, where conservatives currently have a 4-5 majority.
GOP chair Elgine McArdle said Republicans aim to focus more on judicial races than in years past.
“One area the state party has never really engaged much in is a nonpartisan, races including the judicial races,” McArdle said. “That won’t be the case this time around and pretty soon we will announce some steps the party will take to place these judicial races near the top of our priority list next year.”
Two of five seats are up for retention election on the Wyoming Supreme Court. All five current justices were appointed by a Republican governor, and the election is unlikely to significantly shift the ideological balance of the court.
TIPS FOR REPORTING
— What cases are pending or likely to appear before your state Supreme Court? Talk with experts and groups on both sides about how the election’s outcome could affect those cases.
— What groups have gotten involved in your state court elections in recent years? Look at campaign finance filings to see how much they’ve spent in past elections.
— Learn more about the background of your court candidates. If they’re sitting justices, find major opinions they’ve written for the court. For outside candidates, see if they have a political background such as legislative votes, public comments or social media posts that indicate their ideological leaning.
— Reach out to groups that do voter outreach in your area to see if they are prioritizing state supreme court races and what issues and communities they’re paying close attention to.
DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas. Associated Press reporters Jeff Amy, Bruce Schreiner, Steve Karnowski, Gabe Stern, Gary Robertson, Julie Smyth, Claire Rush and Leah Willingham contributed.
The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Localize It is an occasional feature produced by The Associated Press for its customers’ use. Questions can be directed to Katie Oyan at firstname.lastname@example.org.