Election Day could mean big changes for Southern high courts
States across the South are holding pivotal supreme court elections this year. The outcomes could affect cases involving voting rights and criminal justice, and could also bring unprecedented diversity to the courts.
Special interests are preparing to spend big on the races. That includes national partisan groups who are preparing for the post-census redistricting next year.
In Louisiana, two Republicans — Judge Jay McCallum of the state's 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal and Judge Shannon Gremillion of the state's 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal — are facing off for a Supreme Court seat. McCallum is backed by the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry (LABI), the state's largest business lobby and a perennial big spender in state elections. Gremillion has received financial support for past campaigns from John Carmouche, a lawyer known for suing the oil and gas industry and spending heavily to back high court candidates.
Louisiana has seen special-interest spending on judicial elections soar in recent years. Last year, for example, Republican Justice Will Crain was elected to the state's high court after raising $1 million in campaign cash, including donations from LABI and fossil fuel companies. A political action committee funded by trial lawyers spent the most on campaign ads in the race. The amount of special interest money in the state's judicial races has led to calls for reform.
Louisiana elects its high court justices in partisan elections. The election on Nov. 3 is technically the primary, but if one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes there won't be a general election in December.
Bo Staples, the head of LABI's political action committees, said the Supreme Court election offers "a tremendous opportunity to … reshape our critical third branch of government." Last year, the group announced that it would start rating judges on their votes in the cases "most critical to the business community." However, the group recently walked back its plan to bring back judicial evaluations. As Facing South has reported, LABI launched a similar program in 1996 but backed down after concerns about judicial independence were raised.
In Kentucky, anti-abortion forces are eyeing the race for a Supreme Court seat. That race pits Democratic state legislator Chris Harris against state Circuit Court Judge Robert "Bob" Conley, a conservative whose campaign bio includes an endorsement from the Kentucky Right to Life Association. David Nir, political director of the online progressive Daily Kos, said a Conley victory would shift the court to the right. The two are competing in a conservative district in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
In June, Conley and Harris got more votes in the nonpartisan primary election than incumbent Justice Samuel Wright. Incumbents rarely lose supreme court elections, but Wright was caught up in a spending scandal in 2018.
In Mississippi, state Court of Appeals Judge Latrice Westbrooks is challenging incumbent state Supreme Court Justice Kenny Griffis, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in 2018. Westbrooks could become the first Black woman to serve on the nine-member high court in Mississippi, a state in which Black women account for nearly one-fifth of the population.
Griffis and Westbrooks are running in a district where Black people are a slim majority of the voting-age population. Westbrooks was elected to the Court of Appeals in a district that substantially overlaps with the Supreme Court district. She would be the second Black justice on the state's highest court. Justice Leslie King, who's also Black, is unopposed in his current bid for reelection in the same three-justice district as Griffis.
In Texas, Democrats are mounting a concerted effort to win seats on the state Supreme Court for the first time in decades, buoyed by an unpopular president at the top of the Republican ticket and a Democratic offensive to take over the state House. All of the high court candidates are women, and two of them would bring unprecedented diversity to the court. Four of the nine justices on the all-Republican court are on the ballot this year.
One of the Democrats, state District Court Judge Staci Williams, could become the first Black woman to serve on the court. And lawyer Kathy Cheng is back on the ballot after being the first Asian American woman to run for the high court in 2018.
This will be the first election in Texas without straight-ticket voting, which allows citizens to choose all the candidates from one party with a single mark. Texas judges have sometimes been swept out of office in so-called "wave elections" in which one party does very well. In 2018, for example, a Democratic wave brought historic diversity to Texas courts, with a slate of 19 Black women candidates elected to courts in Houston.
After that election, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott proposed changing the state's system of partisan judicial elections. Republicans introduced a bill that would have moved to an appointment system, but only in the counties that include big cities.
The bill didn't pass, and legislators instead set up a committee to explore changes to elections or a switch to an appointment system. The committee's recommendations are due to legislators by the end of the year.
A new NC chief justice?
In North Carolina, Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, the court's only Republican, is challenging Chief Justice Cheri Beasley for the leadership position. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Beasley chief justice last year, making her the first Black woman to hold the position. Newby, who is white, argued that he should have been appointed instead since he had been on the court the longest.
Newby has raised almost $175,000, far
more less than Beasley, whose campaign reported just over $100,000 $550,000* in contributions last month. More than two-thirds of Beasley's contributors have given less than $100, according to a recent email from her campaign.
The other Democratic high court candidates, incumbent Justice Mark Davis and Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman, have raised more than any of the Republicans. Inman has raised
more than $250,000 nearly $300,000,** and Davis has collected around $250,000, according to campaign finance disclosures. Democratic candidates for the state's appellate courts are emphasizing the importance of judicial independence, which was a theme of Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls' 2018 campaign.
Newby recruited the other Republican high court candidates — Court of Appeals Judge Phil Berger Jr. and state Rep. Tamara Barringer — to campaign together as "The Conservative Judges." Berger is the son of state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. Newby, who tends to side with prosecutors and against criminal defendants, has railed against his colleagues for ruling in favor of defendants convicted of horrible crimes. When the court recognized a claim of racial discrimination in jury selection for the first time earlier this year, he was the sole dissenter.
Barringer, Berger, and Newby are expected to get support from the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which put the election on its list of targeted 2020 high court races. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee could run ads backing the Democrats.
Initially focused on state legislative races, the RSLC launched its first judicial election effort in 2012 in North Carolina, spending more than $1 million to help Newby in his last campaign. The money helped keep a conservative majority on the court as it considered a racial gerrymandering lawsuit challenging election districts that the RSLC had helped North Carolina legislators draw. Newby was asked to sit out the case due to the perceived conflict of interest, but he refused.
*This post was updated to reflect Chief Justice Cheri Beasley's current fundraising total.
*This post was updated to reflect Judge Lucy Inman's current fundraising total.
Billy is a contributing writer with Facing South who specializes in judicial selection, voting rights, and the courts in North Carolina.