But the high stakes reflect what may be happening elsewhere – and in some cases it already is. In Ohio, State Supreme Court Justice Pat DeWine rebuffed calls last fall to recuse himself redistricting trials in which her father — Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican — was a defendant. Days later, the state’s Republican Party urged a Democratic judge, Jennifer Brenner, recuse oneself because she had made redistricting an issue during her candidacy.
Nationally, 38 of the 50 states elect judges to their highest court rather than appoint them. For decades, these races received little attention. But a growing partisan split is turning what were once sleepy races for judicial sinecure into frontline battles for ideological dominance of the courts with huge sway over people’s lives.
The United States Supreme Court issued 68 opinions during its last term. State Supreme Courts decide more than 10,000 cases each year. Increasingly, corporations and advocacy groups are looking to them for rulings on critical issues — gerrymandering is one, abortion another — where federal courts have been unfriendly or unhelpful.
Campaign spending underscores the trend. A new report of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that a record $97 million was spent on 76 state Supreme Court races during the last election cycle. Well over four in 10 dollars came from political parties and interest groups, including the conservative nonprofit Judicial Crisis Network, which has funded national campaigns supporting recent Republican nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court. .
Most interest group spending has involved so-called black money, in which the identity of donors is hidden. Conservative groups spent $18.9 million in the 2019-20 cycle, the report said, but liberal groups, which spent $14.9 million, are catching up fast.
The money has produced results. In 2019, a $1.3 million barrage of last-minute publicity by the Republican State Leadership Committee was credited with giving GOP-backed Wisconsin Supreme Court nominee Brian Hagedorn a 6,000 victory. votes out of 1.2 million votes.
Liberal groups have not matched this success. But they outspent the Tories in recent races in Michigan and North Carolina.