It is essential that you, through your vote, make sure courts protect our rights.
We all know the elections in November will quite literally determine the fate of our nation’s health, economic security, and position in the world, not to mention the future of our democracy and rule of law. We did not need more evidence, but every day the current pandemic drives home that who we choose to govern matters to the very lives, health, and well-being of every person in this country.
During our present crisis, as we watch governors, mayors, and state houses make critical decisions daily, we are also reminded that many of the issues that most impact our lives are decided much closer to home. The votes for president and our representatives in Washington are not the only elections that will matter this year; and federal judges are not the only judicial defense protecting our rights.
In this context, as we consider who to vote for, it is important to recognize that in 39 states those who serve on state courts are also elected — and 31 states will hold elections this year. In voting for your state supreme court, you are choosing who to give the final authority to interpret and apply your state’s constitution and laws. It matters tremendously.
State court judges’ rulings affect the quality of our schools; the safety of our neighborhoods; fair and constitutional policing and administration of justice; access to health care, including reproductive rights; protections for workers and consumers; and the quality of the air we breathe and water we drink. In fact, state courts handle over 95% of all cases in the United States.
That’s why we need judges who will protect the rights of all of us, not just the wealthy and powerful.
Consider the role that state supreme courts have played in protecting our key liberties and freedoms:
♦ State supreme courts in Kansas and Washington issued critical decisions requiring changes in how states fund schools to better advance equal access to quality education.
♦ When insurance companies and business lobbyists tried to curtail patients’ rights to seek full recovery if they are injured by a medical practitioner, state supreme courts, including those in Alabama and Florida, struck down such efforts and ensured full accountability and justice for victims.
♦ While the U.S. Supreme Court has held that political gerrymandering cases can never be challenged in federal court, state supreme courts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania invalidated such blatant power grabs that erode voters’ rights and dilute the vote of people of color.
♦ The Missouri Supreme Court held that public sector workers have the right to collectively bargain.
♦ State supreme courts in Washington and Delaware, have declared the death penalty unconstitutional.
♦ State supreme courts were at the forefront of advancing LGBTQ equality, including the right to marry, in states like California and Connecticut.
♦ State supreme courts have invalidated laws that restrict reproductive freedom. For example, in 2018, Iowa’s Supreme Court ruled that “reproductive autonomy” was protected under the state constitution and invalidated a mandate that patients must wait 72 hours to access abortion between informational and procedure appointment.
♦ In Massachusetts, the state’s highest court ruled that state and local police could not detain immigrants solely so federal law enforcement could take them into custody.
Finally, state courts are increasingly critical for other reasons. First, as Alliance for Justice recently documented, Donald Trump and Republicans have reshaped the federal judiciary. For the foreseeable future conservatives will hold a majority on the United States Supreme Court; and Senate Republicans have confirmed scores of lower court judges devoted to turning back the clock on essential constitutional rights and legal protections. Increasingly the fight for justice will be fought in our state courts. Second, about 30% of federal judges previously served on the state bench. Thus, choices voters make in state court elections will impact the federal courts as well.
Yet, too few voters mark their ballots in these important races. Consider Wisconsin. In November, 2018, 1.3 million people voted to elect Democrat Tony Evers for Governor. Yet, in April 2019, less than half that number, 599,768, voted for the progressive candidate Lisa Neubauer for State Supreme Court; and she lost by just 5,960 votes to an ultraconservative who was so vicious in his attacks on LGBTQ equality that Republican business groups publicly repudiated him. That’s a margin of less than 1% of the votes cast for Evers. Imagine if just a small number of progressive voters who stopped near the top of the ticket had filled out their ballots for the progressive state supreme court candidate.
That is why it is essential that you, through your vote, make sure courts protect our rights. Thirty-one states will hold supreme court elections this year. Nine state supreme courts currently are a mere one seat away from tipping the partisan balance to a conservative court. If you live in one of those states: vote. If you don’t, tell everyone you know why state court judges matter, and get to know the process by which yours are selected — and how you can weigh in.