States’ Supreme Court Elections Struggle for Attention

Eight states have competitive elections next week whose outcomes could influence a number of policies. But these down-ballot races are largely overshadowed.
by | November 1, 2018
Associate Justice Tom Parker, a longtime ally of Roy Moore, is looking to be elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. (AP/ROB CARR)

In an election season that features competitive contests up and down the ballot, supreme court races have been relatively starved for attention. But in a number of states, elections for supreme court seats could have vast influence on policy matters in the states, from education to criminal justice to business regulation.

In all, more than a dozen states have state supreme court elections this year, while another dozen are holding “retention elections,” in which voters get to say yes or no to an incumbent justice.

The biggest contests this year are being held in eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia.

While these eight races are looking competitive to one degree or another, the dollar amounts being spent on the campaigns are hardly setting any records. But that’s to be expected, according to Douglas Keith, a counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice. Midterm election cycles, he says, historically feature lower levels of spending on judicial races than do presidential election cycles.

That said, Keith adds, the more troubling trends in judicial election spending are continuing, specifically an ever-growing role for outside interest groups in financing judicial elections.

Through most of October, 54 percent of all ads aired for judicial races have been paid for by outside groups. That’s close to the record-setting 57 percent seen in the 2015-2016 cycle. “This suggests that that the dominance of outside groups in state judicial races is a trend that is here to stay,” Keith says.

The flow of dollars is coming from both sides of the ideological spectrum. The two biggest spenders among the eight state races are the Republican State Leadership Committee on the right and North Carolina Families First on the left. Such groups are required to make disclosures to state campaign finance authorities, Keith says, but they are often made in ways that make it “effectively impossible for the public to figure out who is really behind the ads or why they chose these races to get involved in.”

Below is a rundown of the eight states that have competitive supreme court races this year. They are listed in alphabetical order. For of complete list of supreme court races on the ballot next week, visit the Brennan Center’s full list.

 

Alabama

Alabama’s competitive race next week is for chief justice. Lyn Stuart currently holds the position. She took over after hardline social conservative Roy Moore was suspended for refusing to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. However, in the 2018 Republican primary, Stuart lost to current Associate Justice Tom Parker, a longtime ally of Moore who has been on the court since 2005.

Parker now faces Democrat Robert Vance Jr., a circuit court judge who ran a relatively close race against Moore six years ago. Vance is the son of the late Judge Robert Vance, who was murdered by a mail bomb in 1989. In addition to Vance’s support from Democrats, he has received donations and endorsements from several former Republican justices in the state.

Still, observers consider Parker the favorite due to his Republican affiliation in this solidly red state.

 

Arkansas

The nonpartisan race for an associate justice position on the Arkansas Supreme Court pits the incumbent, Courtney Goodson, against challenger David Sterling, who served as chief counsel for the state Department of Human Services. Both are meeting in a November runoff after finishing the May general election with 37 percent for Goodson and 34 percent for Sterling.

Sterling is pitching himself as the more conservative of the two candidates, which should be a bonus in this solidly red state. He’s received support in the form of ads from the Republican State Leadership Committee that attack Goodson as an insider who took expensive trips with donors.

However, Goodson isn’t out of contention yet. In fact, observers suggest she may be getting sympathy from voters because of the attack ads. A Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll had Goodson leading Sterling, 30 percent to 24 percent, with a plurality -- 46 percent -- undecided.

 

Michigan

In Michigan, supreme court candidates are nominated by the parties but run as nonpartisans. This year, two of the seven incumbent justices are up: Kurtis Wilder and Elizabeth Clement.

Both are Republicans on a court that currently has a breakdown of five Republicans and two Democrats. Wilder and Clement were appointed to the court by Gov. Rick Snyder to fill vacancies; given their status as incumbents, they are favored to win. One potential wild card is that Clement is unpopular with some in her party who are unhappy about her vote in cases involving redistricting and guns.

What’s more, several top-of-the-ballot Democrats are polling well in Michigan, which could give a boost to Democratic candidates Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan Law School professor who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Megan Cavanagh.

 

Nevada

The November ballot includes one uncontested supreme court seat and two contested seats.

The first of the two contested races pits Elissa Cadish and Jerry Tao, two candidates seeking to replace the retiring Michael Cherry. Cadish, a district judge, is a Democrat with union backing; Tao is an appeals judge who once worked for former Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, but who is now aligned with Republican gubernatorial nominee Adam Laxalt and the National Rifle Association.

The second contested race pits incumbent Lidia Siglitch and Matthew Harter. Stiglich, the first openly gay justice in Nevada history, has outraised Harter, a family court judge in Las Vegas who describes himself as a conservative.

Nevada is a competitive state politically this year, and with outside groups energized on both the right and the left for these candidates, these two seats are considered competitive.

 

New Mexico

New Mexico’s one supreme court contest this year pits Gary Clingman, a Republican incumbent, against Michael Vigil, a Democrat who has served for a decade and a half on the state court of appeals. Given the state’s crowded ballot this year, the race has not attracted a lot of attention, but Vigil’s hopes for ousting Clingman could benefit from the state’s current pro-Democratic political environment.

 

North Carolina

North Carolina may have the most convoluted supreme court contest of any state this year.

Initially, one Republican and one Democrat filed to run in November: Barbara Jackson and Anita Earls, respectively. Jackson has served on the court since 2010, while Earls is a prominent civil rights attorney who has been a key player in the state’s long-running battle over redistricting. At the last minute, a little-known attorney from a small firm, Chris Anglin, filed to run, upsetting the apple cart.

While Anglin had been a Democrat, he filed as a Republican, causing a problem for the GOP, which faced the possibility of two general election candidates splitting the vote against a single Democrat. The GOP-controlled legislature punched back by passing a law to strip from the ballot the party affiliation of candidates who had changed their registration within 90 days of the filing deadline. Anglin sued to block the law and succeeded, leaving two Republicans and one Democrat on the ballot -- a big advantage for Earls.

If Earls wins, she would expand the Democratic lead on the court from 4-3 to 5-3.

 

Ohio

The Ohio Supreme Court has two seats up on Election Day. In one race, incumbent Mary DeGenaro, appointed by GOP Gov. John Kasich, faces Democrat and appeals court judge Melody Stewart. In the other, two candidates are vying for an open seat: Republican Craig Baldwin, an appeals court judge, and Democrat Michael Donnelly, a common pleas judge.

Generally, Republicans have an edge in statewide races in Ohio, but none of these four candidates has run statewide before, and Ohio is a political battleground this year, so these races are considered up for grabs.

 

West Virginia

The West Virginia Supreme Court experienced an upheaval this year: Justices Menis Ketchum and Robin Davis both resigned over the summer rather than face impeachment, leaving two open seats to contest this fall.

Ten candidates are running in each contest, but Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s interim appointees are considered the frontrunners in the race -- former U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and former state House Speaker Tim Armstead.

The court’s remaining incumbent justices have also been impeached amid allegations of overspending and corruption. Democrats have criticized the impeachment push as politically motivated because it allowed Justice to remake the court. On Election Day, voters will be able to ratify or reject the changes he’s made so far.

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