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GOP group pledges more spending on Supreme Court races

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A prominent Republican outside group is planning a new wave of spending targeting state Supreme Court elections after a wave of decisions on redistricting maps that have broken in favor of Democrats this year.

The Judicial Fairness Initiative, an arm of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said in a memo Wednesday that the GOP had fallen behind on efforts to win state judicial elections — and that the Democratic advantage in those states was costing Republicans in the decennial battle over redistricting.

“In states like North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Democrats are yanking control of the redistricting process out of the hands of elected legislators and handing it over to their liberal allies on state Supreme Courts,” wrote Andrew Wynne, the group’s vice president. “These liberal, activist judges continue to reinterpret state constitutional language to overturn legislatively drawn maps and issue rulings that favor Democrats.”

The group did not say how much it would spend or on which states. But the focus underscores the role that state Supreme Court justices now play in the decennial redistricting process, especially following a U.S. Supreme Court decision several years ago that effectively punted questions of political gerrymandering from the federal judiciary to state courts.

Thirty-two states will hold elections this year for seats on their highest courts. Those elections vary widely. Some states vote on whether to retain current justices. Others elect judges in nonpartisan elections, though parties typically signal to their voters which candidates they favor. And some states elect judges and justices in partisan elections that get as heated as a race for Congress.

This year, Republicans are likely to target races in at least four states — Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina and Illinois — where Democrats have spent heavily in recent years and where the GOP has lost redistricting fights.

In Ohio, Republicans hold a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court. But earlier this year, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor (R) voted with the three Democratic justices to overturn Republican-drawn legislative and congressional district maps that would have given the GOP a major edge over the next decade.

O’Connor, 70, is retiring this year after 20 years on the bench. Justices Sharon Kennedy (R) and Jennifer Brunner (D) are running to succeed her as the court’s top official.

In Michigan, the state Supreme Court has upheld maps drawn by an independent commission over the objections of some Republicans and Black Democrats. Democratic appointees hold four of the seven seats on the high court; two justices, Democratic appointee Richard Bernstein and Republican appointee Brian Zahra, are up for reelection this year.

North Carolina’s Supreme Court earlier this month struck down Republican-drawn congressional and legislative district maps it said violated the state constitution by giving the GOP an unfair advantage.

Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on the North Carolina court, but two of those Democratic justices — Sam Ervin, 66, and Robin Hudson, 69 — face new elections this year.

And in Illinois, the state Supreme Court upheld Democratic-drawn redistricting lines that Republicans called a partisan gerrymander. Democrats hold four of seven seats, and four seats are up for votes this year. Justices Rita Garman (R) and Mary Jane Theis (D) face retention votes, in which voters can decide to keep them or replace them, while Justices Michael Burke (R) and Robert Carter (D) face reelection votes.

Other high-profile judicial races will take place this year in states such as California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, Oregon and Texas, all states where Democrats or Republicans have challenged the other party’s redistricting plans.

Spending on judicial elections has skyrocketed in recent years. A report published last month by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found the two parties and major outside groups dumped almost $100 million into judicial elections in the last two years alone, accounting for about 20 percent of all spending on judicial races since the turn of the century.

Much of that money has come from big donors. In Illinois in 2020, billionaire conservatives Dick Uihlein and Ken Griffin spent millions trying to oust Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat, in a race that cost both sides a combined $10 million. Kilbride lost his seat.

In a warning to Republican donors, Wynne said the big spending and Democratic victories in states where they control majorities on the courts risk the GOP’s chances of maintaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives not only this decade but also for decades to come.

“Republicans risk an even worse fate in the 2030 redistricting process if we fail to increase the resources we are currently spending in state court races to keep pace with the Democrats,” he wrote.

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