Liberals Prevail in State Supreme Court Elections

Moderate-to liberal candidates won in five states, while conservatives were successful in two.
by | November 8, 2018
In a surprise, Democratic appeals court Judge Melody Stewart defeated incumbent Mary DeGenaro in Ohio. She won 52 percent to 48 percent. (AP/Tony Dejak)

In races that were largely overshadowed by high-stakes U.S. Senate, House and gubernatorial contests this election season, moderate-to-liberal judicial candidates made a strong showing.

They prevailed in state supreme court elections in Arkansas, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Ohio. Conservatives, for their part, cheered results in Alabama and West Virginia.

The highest-profile victory for Democrats came in North Carolina, where Democrat Anita Earls defeated Republicans Chris Anglin and Barbara Jackson. The GOP had worried that Anglin and Jackson would split the Republican vote between them, leading to Earls' victory. They were right: 49 percent voted for Earls, 34 percent for Jackson and 16 percent for Anglin.

Earls is a prominent civil rights attorney who has been a key player in the state's long-running battle over redistricting. Her victory expands the liberal lead on the court to 5-2.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Democrats came in Ohio, where Republicans won most of the statewide races. In one of the two contested supreme court races there, Democratic appeals court Judge Melody Stewart defeated incumbent Mary DeGenaro, who had been appointed by GOP Gov. John Kasich. The margin was 52 percent to 48 percent.

In the other race, Democrat Michael Donnelly, a common pleas judge, defeated Republican Craig Baldwin, an appeals court judge, by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.

The two Ohio Democrats join five Republicans on the court.

In Nevada, a state that experienced a Democratic tilt on Election Day, the more liberal candidate won both of the contested state supreme court seats on the ballot.

Elissa Cadish, a district judge and a Democrat with union backing, easily defeated Jerry Tao, who had aligned himself with the National Rifle Association and the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial nominee, Adam Laxalt.

In Nevada's second contested race, incumbent Lidia Siglitch defeated Matthew Harter by 16 percentage points. Stiglich is the first openly gay justice in Nevada history; Harter, a family court judge in Las Vegas, described himself as a conservative.

Another state with a strong Democratic showing on Election Day was New Mexico, where Democrat Michael Vigil, who has served for a decade and a half on the state court of appeals, ousted Gary Clingman, a Republican incumbent on the court.

The verdict was mixed in Michigan, where supreme court candidates are nominated by the parties but run as nonpartisans.

Two of the seven incumbent justices were up this year: Kurtis Wilder and Elizabeth Clement, both Republican-appointed justices on a court with a breakdown of five Republicans and two Democrats. On Election Day, Clement won another term, but Wilder appears to have lost to Democratic-backed attorney Megan Cavanagh.

Meanwhile, in Arkansas' nonpartisan race for an associate justice position, incumbent Courtney Goodson defeated challenger David Sterling, who served as chief counsel for the state Department of Human Services and who had pitched himself as the more conservative of the two candidates. Despite being attacked in a flurry of ads by the Republican State Leadership Committee, Goodson prevailed.

The good news for Republicans and conservatives came in Alabama and West Virginia.

In Alabama, voters elected current Associate Justice Tom Parker for the court's chief justice post. Parker is a longtime ally of social conservative Roy Moore. He defeated Democrat Robert Vance Jr., who had received donations and endorsements not just from Democrats but also from several former Republican justices who preferred his relatively moderate stances. Parker won by 57 percent to 43 percent.

And in West Virginia, the two interim justices appointed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice -- former U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and former state House Speaker Tim Armstead -- won seats on the court.

The victories come after months of upheaval on the court. Justices Menis Ketchum and Robin Davis both resigned over the summer, and the court's other incumbent justices were impeached amid allegations of overspending and corruption.

Meanwhile, a surprise judicial shift played out in Texas, driven by the surprisingly strong U.S. Senate campaign by Democrat Beto O'Rourke. Democrats captured 30 of 42 judicial seats in play on the state's courts of appeals. The appeals judges are elected from 14 districts for six-year staggered terms with court sizes varying from three to 13 members.

Prior the 2018 election, there were 66 Republican appeals judges and 14 Democratic appeals judges, with Republicans holding a majority on 11 courts and Democrats on three.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this incorrectly cited the North Carolina Supreme Court as having eight justices. It only has seven.