Just four years after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitution guaranteed a right to abortion, the court reversed itself. The state’s constitution hadn’t changed in that time span, but its Supreme Court justices did. Republican politicians in eight states have transformed their state supreme courts, altering the process by which justices reach the bench or the size of the court, USA Today reports. In less than a decade, the moves have pushed the courts to the right or solidified conservative control. The changes take different forms. North Carolina and Ohio made their judicial elections partisan contests. Arizona and Georgia expanded the number of justices. Iowa, Idaho, Montana and Utah granted Republican governors greater control over the process of picking justices. This allowed for rulings in Iowa and North Carolina that overturned precedents and rulings from just a few years, or months, before.
The changes to the courts have flown under the radar. “It's hard to flip a whole state legislature. It's really expensive to win a governor's race. But it's not as hard, frankly, to turn over a state supreme court,” said Michael Kang of Northwestern University. In 2023, 15 legislatures considered bills to increase partisan influence in judicial selection. What’s underway now is part of a long-term project by conservatives to transform state courts, dating to the 1980s. Over 60% of state high court justices are Republican. Yet, roughly 30% of Americans told pollsters this year that they consider themselves Republican, with independents and Democrats accounting for the rest. “All the energy on this issue is on the right,” said law professor Brian Fitzpatrick of Vanderbilt University. He points to data that indicates attorneys lean left; lawyers play a key role in many states where commissions nominate judicial candidates. “It’s the Republicans that are not happy with the status quo,” he said. The change in partisan lineup has clear legal implications. Kang and fellow legal scholar Joanna Shepherd have consistently found that “judges’ voting in cases tends to favor the interests of their campaign contributors in a predictable and statistically meaningful way,” as they wrote in one paper.