Social justice advocates warn judges’ partisanship means ‘there are no guardrails’

North Carolinians should be concerned about the high stakes of the 2024  judicial elections  — and beyond, social justice leaders say.

“Our courts have been, and should be, the guard rails. They should function as a way for checks and balances against unconstitutional things, things that are just unfair, things that give one group of people privileges or access to resources over another,” said Dawn Blagrove, the executive director of Emancipate NC, during a webinar Tuesday night. “Right now in North Carolina, there are no guard rails. And when there are no guard rails, anything can happen.”

“Anything” includes the Republican-controlled Supreme Court overturning rulings on voter ID and gerrymandering issued just months prior by the Democratic majority. Or rehearing arguments over public school funding in the long-running Leandro lawsuit. Or the Judicial Standards Commission investigating Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, a Democrat, for criticizing the lack of diversity in the judiciary.

“It is imperative that we do not allow power hungry ideologues to hijack the civil and social fabric of our state, and that is what is happening right now,” Blagrove said.

Blagrove was a part of “State Courts 101,” a webinar hosted by Pro-Choice North Carolina. Also in attendance was Melissa Price-Kromm, the executive director of North Carolina For The People and Tara Romano, from Pro-Choice North Carolina.

The 90-minute discussion was part civics lesson in how North Carolina’s district, superior, appellate and supreme courts function. It also served as a reminder of how Republicans have used the courts to further their political objectives. Price-Kromm recounted how Republicans years ago made judicial races partisan again, and removed public financing from those races.

“That’s why it’s incredibly, incredibly vital that we know what’s going on in these elections, and we vote down ballot,” she said.

Blagrove warned that the Supreme Court’s rightward tilt has eroded voters’ power by allowing the state’s highest court to rubber stamp Republican lawmakers’ political aims.

“We have a Supreme Court now who doesn’t care about the rules of law,” Blagrove said, “and is clearly more committed to being married to ideology than to the constitution of North Carolina. And when you see that happen, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.”

Democrats have not fared well in recent statewide judicial elections, getting swept in races for the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court and giving the majority to Republicans. Anderson Clayton, chair of the NC Democratic Party, has said the party will take those races more seriously in upcoming elections, employing a staffer to specifically focus on monitoring judicial elections.

Allison Riggs, running to keep her seat on the state Supreme Court, said in a virtual forum last month that she wasn’t just campaigning for herself, but for Democrats running in judicial races for the next several years. She said her goal was “building the pipeline to ensure that when we have the chance, we win back our courts in 2028.”

Tuesday’s webinar encouraged attendees to use the following resources so they can be informed voters:

Above all else Blagrove, Price-Kromm and Romano urged participants to not overlook judicial races. North Carolinians will elect a governor and help elect a president in the 2024 elections, but it is imperative they vote all the way down ballot, they said.

“We the voters are the only people that can bring back some normalcy and get us closer to, at least a place where our courts pretended to be: fair, protective and unbiased,” said Blagrove.

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