by Natalia Paley Whitman
Growing up, I was taught that the U.S. court system is an apolitical, unbiased, and untouchable entity in our democracy. As I got older, I was taught that to make political change, my only option was to organize and vote in elections for the Executive and Legislative branches. And I was convinced that the courts only mattered to me if I found myself standing in a courtroom. This isn’t our nation’s reality.
Each year, community members file over 100 million cases in state courts. State judges make daily decisions that determine our civil rights, from issues like gender and sexuality-based discrimination and COVID-19 mask mandates in schools to climate crisis resiliency plans and the certification of federal elections. While the state courts often escape major headlines – as opposed to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts, which hear only 5% of all cases in the U.S. – they make millions of transformative and binding decisions that influence our day-to-day lives. And even more importantly, as young voters we have the power to shape our state judiciaries. In 21 states, state supreme court justices are elected through partisan and nonpartisan elections. And in 10 states, the governor, elected by their constituents, appoints state supreme court justices. If you care about your civil rights and the rights of your peers, you must be invested in our state courts.
Last year, as I voted in my first-ever presidential election, I saw how fundamental our state courts are to protecting our democracy. State court judges repeatedly rejected the unrelenting GOP lawsuits attempting to overturn Biden’s presidential win — a victory driven largely by youth-led grassroots organizing and unjustly attacked by right-wing politicians. The Nevada Supreme Court confirmed Biden’s win despite ongoing pressure from state GOP to reject mail-in ballots. And when Trump tried to disqualify 221,000 ballots in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit, solidifying the legality of absentee voting. In Pennsylvania, when U.S. Representative Mike Kelly led a lawsuit claiming that mail-in voting was unconstitutional and a judge on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania halted the certifications of ballots, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the decision. As I woke up each morning in early November scared that baseless claims of fraud would steal my first presidential election, state judges were acting as a powerful check on undemocratic and unjust litigation.
This fall, our state courts will once again serve a critical role in legislative elections. Every ten years following the release of the U.S. census data, legislative maps are redrawn with updated congressional and state legislative voting districts. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts didn’t have the authority to rule on partisan gerrymandering, leaving state courts as one of the only checks against discriminatory and partisan maps. As a young voter, I am scared that millions of my peers are voting for the first time in a system that will fragment our power as the nation’s largest growing voting bloc. I am relying on my state supreme court justices to ensure my state legislators are drawing fair and equitable voting districts.
State courts also protect our rights to an equitable and livable future — a future at risk. Judges hold the power to uphold or delegitimize policy, from community health legislation to rights for our LGBTQ siblings to laws enacted to curb the effects of the climate crisis.
State court decisions this year determined the health of millions of students like myself returning to in-person learning. During the height of the pandemic, the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate and stay-at-home order, both implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 and decrease hospitalization rates. Meanwhile, when Illinois Governor JB Pritzker sued three schools for refusing to follow state-wide COVID guidelines, a state judge ruled that the schools must follow the Governor’s masking and social-distancing mandates, protecting the health of hundreds of students and families.
Our state courts have also issued rulings to protect the rights and safety of transgender students. For example, in Doe v. Regional School Unit 26, when Nicole Maines sued her school district for not allowing her to use the girls’ bathroom, the Maine Supreme Court became the first state court to rule that it is unlawful for transgender students to be denied access to a bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. And in R.M.A v. Blue Springs R-IV School District, when a transgender student sued their school under the Missouri Human Rights Act for refusing to respect their gender identity, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of the student.
State Courts are also often the first line of defense for policy and legislation protecting our environment. As our response to the climate crisis has become increasingly politicized and threatened by conservative fiscal concerns, our state courts have been essential to upholding critical environmental responses. Last year, when the Oregon Secretary of State rejected two clean energy ballot measures from being voted on, an Oregon Circuit Court found that the initiatives were legally sound and allowed them to be on the November ballot, effectively giving citizens the right to determine their future. And when a group of citizens filed a lawsuit against the City of New York for approving a resiliency plan to protect the Lower East Side from flooding caused by climate change, a New York trial court rejected the challenge.
As our generation confronts a global climate emergency and assaults on our basic rights, we must ensure that our state judges are on our side.
The stakes have never been higher. You can check out this map to see how your state judges are selected. In 21 states, voters elect their state supreme court justices, just as they do other elected officials. However, many states have non-partisan judicial elections, meaning that candidates do not have a political party listed next to their name. Because information on judicial candidates can be more difficult to find and ballots don’t have a political marker for voters to rely on, many chose to skip over these races when they vote. Further, a 2017 study found that voters are more likely to vote for stereotypically white names, a trend that discriminates against non-white candidates and is exacerbated by a lack of constituent knowledge. It is critical that you know who your judicial candidates are and vote all the way down the ballot. Our state judges make decisions that are just as important as any other elected officials.
If your state doesn’t select judges through an electoral process, you may live in a state where your governor makes judicial appointments. Governors have the power to reshape state judiciaries in powerful ways, through appointing judges who prioritize environmental protections, civil rights, and the needs of every-day people. In New Jersey, for example, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy is up for re-election and there is an upcoming vacancy on the NJ Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee has said they will not move forward with nominee hearings until after election day, meaning the outcome of the gubernatorial election will determine who is appointed to the highest seat in New Jersey. If we want to see judges on the bench who fight for our collective rights and individual wellbeing, we must show our governors that we will not elect them if they do not maintain a fair and independent state judiciary.
Right now, we have the opportunity to flip state Supreme Courts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Nevada and protect our future. To get involved in this fight, check out the incredible work of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, the Ohio Fair Courts Alliance, and excellent reporting by The Nevada Independent. And keep an eye out for resources from Alliance for Justice as they expand their fight for fair courts.
This year, I will be voting for my state Supreme Court justices. If you care about the integrity of our democracy, our rights to gender self-expression, and our nation’s response to the climate emergency, please join me. As we fight for our collective right to a livable future, it is imperative that we use our voices — and our vote — to shape our state courts.