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Stakes Rise for Judicial Elections

This year more than ever, the integrity and independence of state courts are under attack, including right here in North Carolina. What used to be sleepy, nonpartisan affairs are increasingly nasty, expensive, partisan battles.

Going into 2021 and 2022’s decennial redistricting cycle, experts widely expected state legislatures to ramp up partisan gerrymandering like never before, in a bid to hold onto or expand their own power, with the inevitable result that Congress and state legislatures become less representative of public opinion. Given our state’s history of such assaults on democracy, and the 2020 election preserving a state legislative majority for the last decade’s gerrymandering politicians, North Carolina was expected to be front and center. And try those lawmakers did.

But then another factor dramatically altered the equation. In at least three key states — North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — voters sued, and independently elected state Supreme Court judges handed down rulings defending democracy. These courts took an opportunity recently confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court: they applied the provisions of their own states’ constitutions to the ugly reality of increasingly extreme partisan gerrymandering. In all three states, courts ruled that their state’s constitutional protections for fundamentally free elections protect voters’ right to choose their own representatives, instead of politicians selecting their own voters.

In response, gerrymandering politicians and their allies are stepping up their efforts to get rid of elected judges who believe in protecting voting rights and the democratic process. If that sounds politically apocalyptic, it should. A fair and nonpartisan judiciary is one of the bedrock requirements for a functioning democracy — and that bedrock is in danger of being cracked. 

North Carolina’s judicial elections have seen rising partisanship over the past decade, as the state’s legislative majority has sought to remake state courts in their own partisan image. For most of that same decade, however, voters statewide chose the opposite path, choosing more appellate judges willing to act as a constitutional check on legislative abuses of power.

Two years ago, voters picked a new state Supreme Court chief justice by just 400 votes out of more than five million cast. Now that court has a narrow 4 to 3 majority of justices willing to protect the state constitution’s establishment of three co-equal branches of government, instead of considering the legislative branch a superior, autonomous power. 

Two of the court’s seven seats are up for election this year. Voters’ choices in those contests will be one factor which determines whether our state remains a functioning democracy, in which voters “have a fighting chance to elect a government that fulfills their desire for environmental justice and climate action.”

Elections matter — and this year, the statewide judicial elections will matter even more than ever before. We’ll keep you informed of how you can protect our democracy.

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