Partisan Control Was on the Line in These State Supreme Court Races

The outlines of Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio on a dark blue outline, with columns of court documents in each outline and Illinois and Michigan tinted shades of blue and North Carolina and Ohio tinted shades of red.

While the race for Congress got the lion’s share of attention during this year’s midterms, there were plenty of other races on the ballot too, with many states holding elections for their state Supreme Courts. Over 30 states had such races on the ballot, but only in four of them was partisan control of the courts up for grabs. In a split outcome, Democrats won the Supreme Courts in Illinois and Michigan while Republicans won control of the highest courts in North Carolina and Ohio.

Democrats retained control of the Illinois and Michigan Supreme Courts.

Democrats had outstanding elections in much of the Midwest. Incumbent governors won their re-election bids across the region and Democrats won full control of the Michigan Legislature for the first time since the 1980s and flipped the Minnesota state Senate. Further down the ballot, Democrats won Supreme Court races in Illinois and Michigan that allowed them to retain control of the courts.

With two open seats on the Illinois Supreme Court, Republicans had a chance to win control of the court. Unlike most states, Illinois elects its Supreme Court justices from districts and neither of the districts with open seats contained any portion of Cook County, a Democratic stronghold and the state’s most populous county. On Tuesday, however, Lake County judge Elizabeth Rochford (D) and appellate justice Mary Kay O’Brien (D) both defeated their Republican opponents in these open seats, giving Democrats a 5-2 majority on the court. The victory is an important win for abortion rights both in Illinois and the Midwest more broadly, as Republicans had hoped to use a friendly court to challenge the state’s pro-choice laws. Other issues the court could weigh in on include criminal justice, gun safety and environmental rights.

Next door in Michigan, two Supreme Court justices successfully ran for re-election. With Michigan Supreme Court justices Richard Bernstein (D) and Brian Zahra (R) both winning, Democrats will maintain their 4-3 edge on the court — Republicans would have had to beat Bernstein to win control. Notably, the Michigan Supreme Court stepped in earlier this year to place measures protecting abortion rights and expanding voting on the ballot after Republican members of the state canvassing board refused. If Republicans had taken control of the court, there would have been a very real risk it wouldn’t get involved in a future deadlock if Republican canvassers refused to approve a ballot measure or even certify election results. Tuesday’s results ensure that the state Supreme Court will continue respecting the will of Michiganders.

The fight against partisan gerrymandering suffered setbacks in North Carolina and Ohio.

Less happy news came from North Carolina and Ohio. In the Tarheel State, Richard Deitz (R) defeated Lucy Inman (D) for the seat left open by Justice Robin Hudson’s (D) retirement and Trey Allen (R) unseated incumbent justice Sam J. Ervin IV (D). As a result, Republicans won a 5-2 majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court, with huge implications for partisan gerrymandering. The court’s Democratic majority was instrumental in safeguarding against unfair maps. Earlier this year, the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned Republican gerrymanders, finding that partisan gerrymandering violates the state constitution. However, North Carolina’s court-imposed congressional map will only last one election cycle and the state legislature is already preparing to redraw it. If Republicans in the Legislature draw another extreme partisan gerrymander, it’s possible the court’s new Republican majority will let them get away with it. But it’s not just partisan gerrymandering that’s on the line in North Carolina — the court is poised to hear a case about felony disenfranchisement next year and countless other issues could find their way to its docket.

Ohio Republicans already held a majority on their state Supreme Court, but Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor (R) consistently sided with the court’s Democrats to overturn partisan gerrymander after partisan gerrymander. Unfortunately for Ohio voters, O’Connor retired this year and the chief justiceship was won by fellow justice Sharon Kennedy (R) who voted repeatedly to uphold the gerrymanders. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) will appoint someone to replace Kennedy as an associate justice, and given that DeWine voted to approve the gerrymanders the court overturned, it’s likely he’ll appoint someone that will vote to uphold them. Ohio held its elections this year under maps the state Supreme Court ruled were unconstitutional but if Ohio Republicans continue to draw partisan gerrymanders, the new court might not rule the same way.

This year’s results underscore the importance of judicial elections.

All in all, the results of this year’s state Supreme Court elections were a mixed bag. While the results in Illinois and Michigan were important wins, the outcomes in Ohio and North Carolina will have significant ramifications for democracy and elections in those states. Both states likely lost an important check against partisan gerrymandering, giving Republicans a free hand to draw maps to their advantage. When it comes to state Supreme Court elections, democracy can literally be on your ballot.