"After Roe v. Wade was overturned, we had to turn to state courts and state constitutions as the critical backstop to protecting access to abortion," said one advocate. "And the stakes are unbelievably high."
Two key state supreme court races in 2023 showed that Americans "are beginning to understand that state courts can serve as a firewall for our democracy," said an official at a national grassroots advocacy group in an op-ed Thursday—but the energy voters brought the Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Supreme Court races, she warned, must spread nationwide in 2024 in order to safeguard Americans' "fundamental freedoms."
At The Fulcrum, Stand Up America's deputy communications director, Sarah Harris, wrote that about a quarter of all state supreme court justices will be on ballots in November due to term limits, mandatory elections, and retirements. Voters in 33 states are set to decide who should sit on top courts.
"Americans can't afford to elect judges who are unwilling to state their position on democracy issues, or risk further assaults on our right to vote and our right to reproductive healthcare," wrote Harris. "Wisconsin and Pennsylvania voters have set a commendable example, highlighting that the strength of our democracy rests in the hands of those who actively engage in its preservation."
In Wisconsin, Justice Janet Protasiewicz won her state supreme court seat last April in an election that inspired the state's highest-ever turnout for an off-election year judicial race. Supporters of the Democratic judge highlighted her strong backing of abortion rights, voting access, and worker protections, and noted that a Democratic majority on the state's high court could decide whether former President Donald Trump would be able to challenge the 2024 election results, as he attempted to in 2020.
Voters in Ohio and Michigan are among those who face similarly high stakes this year, Harris said. In the former state, two Democratic judges and one Republican are up for reelection to a court that currently has a 4-3 majority favoring the GOP.
"The state Supreme Court is going to be the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the new constitutional amendment that the people voted for and organized around... That is a huge amount of power."
Voters turned out in droves in November to pass a constitutional amendment affirming that Ohioans have the right to make their own reproductive health decisions, including whether to obtain abortion care.
More than 30 abortion restrictions are in place in the state, and challenges to them could end up before Ohio's top court, making the state supreme court race "very high-stakes," Jessie Hill, a law professor and consultant for Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights, toldThe Associated Press last week.
"The state Supreme Court is going to be the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the new constitutional amendment that the people voted for and organized around," Hill told the outlet. "That is a huge amount of power."
"We saw an incredible number of voters come out to vote on that amendment and an incredible amount of investment in those campaigns," Hill added. "I think we'll see a similar attention and investment in Ohio."
In Michigan, where the high court has a 4-3 Democratic majority and two judges on the 2024 ballot—one from each party—victories for the GOP could also allow a new conservative majority to reverse several pro-abortion rights laws passed in 2023.
"After Roe v. Wade was overturned, we had to turn to state courts and state constitutions as the critical backstop to protecting access to abortion," Brigitte Amiri, deputy director at the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, told the AP. "And the stakes are unbelievably high in each of these cases in each of these states."
The results of this year's state court races could also have implications for redistricting efforts, which the Republican State Leadership Committee told the AP it is focusing on heavily, calling the state supreme courts the "last line of defense against far-left national groups."
Republicans are hoping to expand their 5-2 majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court, which last year reversed a previous ruling on a redistricting case and allowed political gerrymandering, giving the GOP an electoral edge.
"Voters' increased attention on state supreme court races is a direct response to Republican-led efforts to restrict access to the ballot and overturn the will of the voters in 2020," Harris wrote at The Fulcrum. "Americans are also paying closer attention to the courts after key U.S. Supreme Court decisions left reproductive justice and voting rights in the hands of state legislatures."
"Right now," she added, "the electorate is demanding justices who uphold the democratic process and rule on cases without a partisan agenda."