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In North Carolina, a Pitched Battle Over Gerrymanders and Justices

But the high stakes reflect what may happen elsewhere — and in some cases, already has. In Ohio, Justice Pat DeWine of the State Supreme Court rebuffed calls last fall to recuse himself from redistricting lawsuits in which his father — Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican — was a defendant. Days later, the state Republican Party urged a Democratic justice, Jennifer Brenner, to recuse herself because she had made redistricting an issue when running for office.

Nationwide, 38 of 50 states elect justices for their highest court rather than appoint them. For decades, those races got scant attention. But a growing partisan split is turning what once were sleepy races for judicial sinecures into frontline battles for ideological dominance of courts with enormous sway over peoples’ lives.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued 68 opinions in its last term. State Supreme Courts decide more than 10,000 cases every year. Increasingly, businesses and advocacy groups turn to them for rulings on crucial issues — gerrymandering is one, abortion another — where federal courts have been hostile or unavailing.

Campaign spending underscores the trend. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, at New York University, concluded that a record $97 million was spent on 76 State Supreme Court races in the most recent election cycle. Well over four in 10 dollars came from political parties and interest groups, including the conservative nonprofit Judicial Crisis Network, which has financed national campaigns backing recent Republican nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Most interest group spending has involved so-called dark money, in which donors’ identities are hidden. Conservative groups spent $18.9 million in the 2019-20 cycle, the report stated, but liberal groups, which spent $14.9 million, are fast catching up.

The money has brought results. In 2019, a $1.3 million barrage of last-minute advertising by the Republican State Leadership Committee was credited with giving the G.O.P.-backed candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Brian Hagedorn, a 6,000-vote victory out of 1.2 million cast.

Liberal groups have not matched that success. But they have outspent conservatives in recent races in Michigan and North Carolina.

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