Republicans See State Courts as Next Political Battlegrounds | Pennsylvania News

By NICHOLAS RICCARDI, Associated Press

DENVER (AP) — In most midterm election years, races for state Supreme Court seats are overshadowed by campaigns for governor or the Senate. Some Republicans, however, say the party’s priorities need to change.

The GOP’s focus on the makeup of state supreme courts intensified this week after a series of legal setbacks frustrated the party’s efforts to redraw the maps of Congress in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. That has prompted some prominent Republicans to pressure the party to pay more attention to the November election in which some Supreme Court justices will face voters.

“The top of the ticket where you have a governor’s race, the Senate race, is important,” Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who heads the National Republican Redistricting Trust, told reporters this week. “But if you want your House districts to be determined in equitable districts, you must be careful of your elected Supreme Courts.”

The comment, and the rulings that triggered it, show how state courts are playing an increasingly important role in the politically charged, once-a-decade reshuffling of legislative lines. Legislatures generally control the process and can distort the lines to garner as many of their party’s voters as possible in as many constituencies as they can draw, a process known as gerrymandering.

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Even at the best of times, this process triggers an avalanche of litigation. But that cycle has fueled equal intensity in state courts, as the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that federal courts cannot hear partisan gerrymandering cases. Race-based line art is governed by a thicket of federal laws and constitutional principles and the federal courts can intervene in these cases. But for most redistricting legal battles, state courts are the last resort.

GOP frustration with state courts intensified this week after the Democratic-majority Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a lower court’s recommendations to adopt a GOP-drawn map that reduced the number of seats in the Democratic-leaning House, despite the fact that Democrats largely represent areas where the state’s population is growing. Instead, the high court chose a map drawn by Democratic plaintiffs that combined two seats held by Republicans where population growth was particularly stagnant.

On the same day, a panel of North Carolina judges ruled that a map drawn by that state’s GOP-controlled legislature did not comply with a 4-3 ruling by the Democratic-controlled Supreme Court that ruled. found a similar card to illegally favor Republicans. The new map, drawn by court-appointed cartographers and left untouched later Wednesday by the state High Court, could cost Republicans three House seats from the initial map they submitted, which made 10 of the state’s 14 seats safe for the GOP.

Despite Republican criticism, state courts do not always rule along partisan lines.

The Republican Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, for example, joined three Democrats in repeatedly dismissing maps drawn by the GOP-controlled state legislature as illegal partisan gerrymanders. The Ohio court, which has a GOP majority, ordered members of the state’s map-drawing commission — including Republican Gov. Mike DeWine — to attend a hearing next week on the grounds for which they should not be held in contempt for drawing non-conforming charts. with his commands.

Earlier this month, Florida’s Supreme Court, which is largely appointed by Republican governors, unanimously rejected a request from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to bless the most controversial aspect of his favorite map. , dissolving a North Florida district designed to give black voters a chance to choose their own representatives.

The rulings are one reason this round of redistricting has gone better for Democrats than many expected. With most major states outside of GOP-controlled Florida having completed their maps, the party has remained roughly even with Republicans, even as the GOP controls the line-drawing process in more states.

“We’re not winning because of the political nature of supreme courts,” said Kelly Ward Burton, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Coalition. “We are winning because the Republicans broke the law.”

For Republicans, however, Democratic groups like the NDRC that focus on electing Democratic judges in the 22 states with high court elections are part of the problem. They point to the organization’s spending in the 2018 North Carolina Supreme Court race, where Democrat Anita Earls’ campaign, now the deciding vote on the bench, received $5,200 from the NDRC and the group donated an additional $250,000 to the state Democratic Party, which then donated $199,000. to the Earls campaign.

Of course, Republicans and their allies have themselves spent millions on North Carolina Supreme Court races over the past decade. The GOP has said it may file a lawsuit to overturn North Carolina’s new maps in federal court, arguing that state courts violate federal control of elections or give black voters inappropriate weight in their votes. line drawing decisions.

But he also intends to contest Supreme Court elections this fall, when two of the Democratic justices who constitute a 4-3 majority will be re-elected. In Ohio, the chief justice who challenged her party, Maureen O’Connor, is retiring and her seat is up for grabs in November. If the GOP wins one of the state races, the Legislature can redraw that state’s maps for 2024 and count on a friendlier high court, Republicans say.

“These Supreme Court elections in North Carolina and Ohio are extremely important this fall,” Christie said.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats have a majority of three justices and no justices are up for election this year. But the Republican state legislature has been trying to limit the court’s power since ruling in 2018 that the legislature had illegally manipulated the map for the past decade to benefit the GOP. Pennsylvania lawmakers have proposed impeachment or other limitations on the court’s power, and a state senator this week introduced a bill barring him from drawing new maps that last more than two years.

Michael Li, a redistricting expert from the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, has warned that state courts are becoming increasingly crucial political and electoral battlegrounds as the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court overturns the rights guaranteed by previous judicial majorities. He cited a series of recent decisions that have weakened the Voting Rights Act as well as the court’s upcoming abortion case that could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade who legalized the procedure nationwide.

“We may be in a time where it’s very state by state, not just in redistricting but in a lot of rights,” Li said. “People recognize that we’re in a different world now.”

Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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