In less than a week, North Carolina voters will decide the future of abortion rights, election maps, and even education spending. Will these issues be decided in the race for U.S. Congress? No. In votes for state senators? No.
In fact, many major policy decisions in the next few years will be made by candidates historically overlooked by voters: the justices of the NC Supreme Court.
With a divided government, namely the Republican-controlled General Assembly versus Democratic governor Roy Cooper, disputes often come before the state supreme court to mediate.
“Our legislature has gotten more extreme, and it’s necessitated the court stepping up and protecting rights under the state constitution,” says Billy Corriher, a political analyst and writer.
“You see a similar dynamic at the federal level. How often do [Congress and the president] actually get together and pass an important bill? It’s pretty rare, and that’s left the U.S. Supreme Court as the source of change when it comes to our policies.”
On the NC Supreme Court, Democrats currently hold a narrow 4-3 majority, which has resulted in a host of decisions preserving voting rights, striking down abortion bans, and mandating better education funding. But if Republicans flip just one seat on the court this November, they will retake the majority and are expected to uphold abortion restrictions, gerrymandered maps, and other GOP-passed measures.
“We need a court system that is going to rule by the [state] constitution and provide fair decisions based on the law … rather than based on their own political affiliation,” says Dr. Bobbie Richardson, chair of the state Democratic Party.
“Our supreme court has been the backstop for political gerrymandering and barriers Republicans have tried to put in the way of African Americans having access to the polls,” she adds. “[If we lose the majority], we will lose the power of voting rights and perhaps even other rights. We will not have any backstop for women’s right to choose their own medical care.”
What’s at stake?
Over the next few years, the NC Supreme Court could certainly weigh in on abortion rights. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, it left it up to states to make decisions on when and how abortions can take place.
North Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban has already been upheld by a federal court, but Republicans have promised to pass more stringent restrictions if they can override Cooper’s veto. And now they no longer have to consider the protections of Roe. If those laws were challenged, they would move to the courts, where the state supreme court would be the ultimate authority, says Tara Romano, executive director of Pro-Choice NC.
“We don’t know what kind of laws the General Assembly might come up with … but there could be protections [in the state constitution] around privacy, nondiscrimination … [so] some of these laws could land in front of the NC Supreme Court,” Romano says. “For a long time, the courts have been a backstop against legislative and executive branch overreach. We still need to have that sort of fair and balanced makeup on the court.”
North Carolina is one of the few southeastern states where abortion is still legal, albeit with a lot of restrictions. Romano says she’s worried about Republicans potentially passing laws they’ve seen enacted in other states since Roe was overturned.
“We’re seeing anti-abortion lawmakers say they want to pass laws that say you can’t share any information about abortion, or that people can’t travel out of state to access abortion,” Romano says. “Those are the types of laws that could end up before state supreme courts. Not just being unable to access abortion but [not] being able to travel, being able to share information.”
Another big issue is voting rights, which encompasses issues like voter ID and gerrymandering.
Since 2010, North Carolina legislators have been embroiled in what seems like an endless parade of legislation around election maps. Most recently, the state supreme court threw out a set of Republican-drawn maps, arguing they were unconstitutional because of partisan gerrymandering. The case was decided by the slim 4-3 Democratic majority.
Now, that case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide whether the North Carolina legislature has absolute authority to over redistricting or if state courts can weigh in. The court’s ruling in the case, Moore v. Harper, will determine whether new maps are drawn by the legislature or if they’ll continue to end up before the state court, with national implications. Regardless, issues of gerrymandering and voting rights could continue to be disputed in the North Carolina judicial system.
The court is also set to hear challenges to North Carolina’s controversial 2018 voter ID law, which could disenfranchise Black voters. In addition, it will soon consider whether thousands of people on parole or probation should have their voting rights restored.
“I think if you look at the recent decisions from the supreme court, they largely upheld individual and civil rights,” says Bri Brough, an advocate with All on the Line, a national anti-gerrymandering organization. “In the recent redistricting case, [the supreme court] found that we have a right to vote in free elections and extreme partisan gerrymandering is a violation of that.
“[Those issues] are likely to come up again. People should be aware of that when they’re voting. Look at the judges and see who you feel is going to uphold voting rights and civil rights.”
More money than ever in judicial races
Although judicial candidates mostly stay away from hot-button political issues—instead touting their qualifications and independence—the races for the NC Supreme Court are clearly partisan. Millions of dollars have already poured in from political organizations and PACs fighting to get conservative judges elected.
The North Carolina GOP (and others) is supporting Trey Allen, a Republican challenger to Democratic incumbent Justice Sam Ervin IV, as well as Republican Richard Dietz, who is running against Democrat Lucy Inman for an open seat.
The amount of money pouring into these races “is increasing with every election,” says Corriher. This year, the issues of abortion and redistricting have drawn national political organizations into the election.
In Washington, DC, a conservative Super PAC called Fair Courts America pledged to spend a record-breaking $22 million on high court races in key states, including North Carolina, according to Corriher. The Republican State Leadership Committee also planned to spend more than $5 million—a record amount for the group—on supreme court races in North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Spokesman Andrew Romeo said the group’s focus is on redistricting.
On the Democratic side, Planned Parenthood pledged to spend $1 million to support Ervin and Inman, noting the court could soon weigh in on abortion rights, Corriher says. The ACLU of North Carolina also pledged $1.1 million toward “a campaign to educate voters on the importance of the [NC] Supreme Court elections this November” using “grassroots outreach, direct mail and digital ads,” the website states.
“There is no doubt that politicians in the legislature will attempt to ban abortion in North Carolina, and we need a state supreme court that will protect our freedoms and our state constitution,” Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a news release.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee has also spent more than $2 million on races across the country, including in North Carolina, according to FEC reports.
Inside North Carolina, one GOP campaign donor launched Stop Liberal Judges, a political committee that has $850,000 on hand, according to state finance reports.
Former U.S. congressman Mark Walker, a Republican, also created Win the Courts, a political committee campaigning on behalf of Allen, Dietz, and North Carolina’s other conservative judicial candidates. The group spent about $1,500 through October 6; finance reports for the weeks leading up to Election Day are not yet available.
Corriher says these groups, and others, could potentially drop millions of dollars on ads in the final days of the election.
“Some of these groups don’t even start spending money until the final week of the election,” he says. “Most of the attack ads that you see in these elections are coming from independent groups; they’re not coming from the candidates themselves.”
While liberals are giving directly to candidates—Ervin and Inman have each reported raising more than $1 million, about twice as much as their Republican opponents—conservatives seem more focused on campaigning independently for their picks, according to Corriher.
“I’m seeing ads pop up on my TV all the time, mostly backing the Republican candidates. It seems like the Democrats are focused a lot more on candidate fundraising. The Republicans aren’t as focused on raising money for the campaigns as they are bringing in these independent spending groups to back them up,” he says.
“We have [also] seen some progressive groups spending money in this election in a way that they haven’t before … Planned Parenthood and the ACLU …. I don’t know how that’s going to impact the race.”
See our endorsements for more information about the judicial candidates we support, Democrats Sam Ervin IV and Lucy Inman.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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