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North Carolina voters should pay close attention to the state courts


by Tara Romano, NC Newsline
February 9, 2024

With the 2024 presidential and congressional elections on the horizon, many of us may be thinking about how these elections will impact the United States Supreme Court. Presidents nominate U.S. Supreme Court justices, and the U.S. Senate confirms these nominations, placing justices on the highest court in the land for a lifetime of consequential and precedent-setting rulings.

North Carolina voters mustn’t forget that we also have state judges issuing rulings that are equally, if not more, consequential for our state’s residents, often impacting our day-to-day lives. These judges are not appointed — we directly elect them. 

Do you have the tools you need to not just make informed decisions about who you will vote for, but also to educate your family and friends about the importance of these races? Too often voters will check off the top-of-the-ticket races and leave the races further down the ballot — like judicial races — blank. In elections where the winner may just have a few hundred more votes than their opponent, every vote counts.

In North Carolina, we vote on judges for our state Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Superior Courts, and District Courts. As abortion access has been “thrown back to the states” in the wake of the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs case, many readers may be familiar with the role of state supreme courts in protecting aspects of abortion access (such as in Kansas and Pennsylvania) or in further restricting access (recently in Texas), with more state decisions expected in the coming months (Wyoming and Florida).

In the late-1990’s the North Carolina State Supreme Court upheld the legislature’s anti-abortion law that severely limited the use of the state abortion fund, but the court has not really weighed in on abortion cases in the years since; many of the challenges that have been brought to our state laws typically took place in federal courts. Without the federal protection of Roe v. Wade, however, we will likely see more cases come back to our state Supreme Court.

A timely example of the impact of our state courts can be seen in recent voting rights cases. In 2023, our state Supreme Court took the extremely politicized step of reversing two voting rights rulings that it had issued just months before. While not directly addressing abortion access, we know that political gerrymandering and efforts to block people from voting directly impact reproductive rights. Without a representative and accountable government, anti-abortion lawmakers feel free to pass their restrictions over the will of the people. When our state Supreme Court overturned its own rulings on voting rights and maps last year, the only thing that had changed in either case was the composition of the court.

Who serves on the court matters.

While our state Supreme Court can rule on constitutional issues and the protection of civil rights, the lower courts also regularly have an impact on our lives and rights, including reproductive rights and healthcare. The lower courts hear criminal and civil cases, small claims, and family law proceedings, and many of us are more likely to interact with these courts rather than the higher courts. With the increasing criminalization of abortion, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive healthcare, cases involving self-managed abortion, miscarriages, stillbirths, assisting minors accessing abortion, interactions with anti-abortion protestors at clinics, and even providing information for abortion care may come before our state’s courts. 

We don’t have to imagine these scenarios because they’ve been happening across the country in the wake of Dobbs, and even before the fall of Roe. As we see anti-abortion elected officials become more emboldened, it seems likely we’ll see more attempts to push their anti-abortion agenda.

For example, late last year, a North Carolina Appeals Court judge tried to insert his belief that life begins at conception into a child custody ruling (that was later withdrawn). While all judges are going to have their personal beliefs, our judicial branch is set up to provide rulings based on the constitution, legal precedents, and the foundation that we are all equal under the law. We expect the judges we elect to craft their rulings based on this foundation, not on their personal political ideology. 

It’s not just abortion rights cases that will come before our state courts, of course. Challenges to discriminatory laws and practices, domestic violence cases, family law proceedings, consumer protection cases, public education funding, and voting rights lawsuits have appeared and will come back before our state courts. Our judiciary was set up to be our third branch of government and serve as a check on legislative and executive branch overreach — not to push an ideological agenda. This March and November, in the primary and general elections, the voters will have a chance to have our say in who sits on those judicial benches.

Who serves on all of our state courts has probably never been more important. 

Emancipate NC, North Carolina for the People, and Pro-Choice North Carolina will be hosting a “State Courts 101” webinar on Tuesday, February 13. You can find more information and register here:

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