Political parties, candidates, and outside groups poured record levels of funding into campaigns for and against state judicial candidates across the country this year. The $63 million directed toward state-level judicial races in the 2022 midterm elections, a historic amount, is indicative of how highly consequential control of the judiciary is when it comes to whether or not enacted legislation and legislatively drawn congressional district maps are allowed to take effect.
25 states held supreme court elections in the 2022 midterms, accounting for 70 of the nation’s 344 total judicial seats. While Democrats successfully retained control of supreme court majorities in 16 states they were defending, Republicans were able to win control of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Republicans also replaced a Republican state supreme court justice in Ohio, one who had voted with Democrats to strike down congressional maps approved by the Republican-led Ohio House and Senate, with a more conservative justice. While the GOP now has a new state supreme court majority in North Carolina and a more united majority in Ohio, no state supreme courts flipped from Republican to Democratic majorities in 2022.
State supreme court justices operate in a similar fashion to their federal counterparts, acting as final interpreters and arbiters of state law. However, while federal judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, methods for state-level supreme court justice selection vary. The methods for state supreme court justice selection range from plebiscite and legislative approval to gubernatorial appointment coupled with periodic retention votes, with some states holding partisan races and some non-partisan.
A significant portion of states incorporate the electorate to some degree in state supreme court selection. This year, four states held partisan state judicial elections, eight held nonpartisan elections, 11 held retention elections, and two held a combination of partisan and retention elections.
Ohio and North Carolina are the only states in recent history to shift from nonpartisan to partisan elections. In partisan elections, parties nominate candidates who are then subject to a public vote where political affiliation is listed on the ballot.
While Ohio went into the 2022 midterms with a 4-3 GOP majority on the state supreme court, retiring moderate Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who voted with the Democrats on gerrymandering cases that struck down congressional maps drawn by the GOP-led Ohio Legislature, will be replaced by the more conservative Justice Sharon Kennedy. Meanwhile in North Carolina, wins by Trey Allen (R) and Richard Dietz (R) swing the majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court from 4–3 Democratic to 5–2 Republican.
On a national scale, the 2022 state judicial elections resulted in a virtual stalemate. There ended up being no significant change in partisan control of state supreme courts despite the historic level of spending on those races. While Republican state supreme court campaigns were successful in Ohio and North Carolina, Democrats narrowly maintained state supreme court majorities in Illinois and Michigan. The victories for Republican supreme court candidates in Buckeye and Tar Heel States could, it is widely believed, translate into congressional pickups for Republicans in 2024.
“Both states’ high courts struck down gerrymandered districts in the past year, but Republican justices dissented in those rulings,” a Governing Magazine reporter wrote about North Carolina and Ohio. “The Republican-led legislatures in both states will redraw congressional districts in the next few years, and the new high-court majorities will likely allow them to gerrymander them to benefit the GOP.” A combined $63 million was spent in 2022 on state judicial races. In 2024, 32 states are holding judicial elections with 74 total judgeships up for grabs. 16 are partisan, 30 are nonpartisan, and 28 are retention elections. With their outcomes increasingly recognized as critical to advancing legislative agendas and winning congressional majorities, state-level judicial races will continue to attract big money in the coming election cycle and beyond.