State supreme courts have the final word on interpreting state constitutions. Their decisions have massive implications for abortion access, taxes, LGBTQ+ rights, labor, policing and other issues that affect people’s lives.
So why do these courts fly under the radar? That’s partly by design. Justices rarely seek public attention, preferring to let their opinions do the talking. But just because they’re not loud doesn’t mean they’re not powerful.
At the Center Public Integrity, we spent six months looking into eight states where Republican politicians passed laws that pushed state supreme courts in a conservative direction or helped strengthen Republican control.
In the process, we learned how reporters — and other interested people — can dig into high courts in any state.
Explore how judges reach the bench
America has a unique system for picking judges. For one, almost nowhere else in the world, except for the United States, has judicial elections.
But not every state has these elections or uses the same type. Some have “retention elections” — where voters can keep or kick a sitting judge off the bench — while others have partisan elections or nonpartisan ones. Some states have no direct role for voters whatsoever, leaving the matter up to governors and legislatures. (Muddying the waters even further, states often have one method for filling seats on an interim basis, and another for a justice’s first full term.)
About this series
State supreme courts were once dominated by Democrats. A concerted effort by right-wing groups has changed that — with massive implications for abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and elections.
Any proposed change to judicial selection in your state could represent an attempt by politicians and activists to help their favored judges reach the bench. The National Center for State Courts helpfully tracks proposed legislation.
Our investigation focused on eight states that have passed laws affecting their high courts in recent years, while legislators in many other states are seeking to follow suit.
If your state has made changes to its system of judicial selection, ask questions about them and their impact. Who are the new justices on the bench? Have they flipped partisan control? Are they overturning precedents?
And learn about judges by reading their financial disclosures and exploring when they have and haven’t recused themselves from cases. For example, North Carolina collects financial disclosures here.
Small process changes fuel big results
Some of the changes that we reported on seem minor, like tweaking the membership of a nominating commission. But the people proposing them are often sophisticated political actors who know bureaucratic details won’t grab headlines but can have major implications.
Politicians are unlikely to say they’re making a change for political gain, but you can contextualize changes by seeing what they’ve meant in other states.
Is your state considering adopting partisan elections? Ohio and North Carolina have in recent years.
Are legislators considering weakening the role of the state bar on a nominating commission? They are following in the footsteps of Iowa, Utah and Idaho.
Do they want to dump the nominating commission entirely? That’s what Montana did.
Or maybe your governor wants to add seats to the high court? That would put it in line with Georgia and Arizona.
Data can help tell the story
Your state’s supreme court is worth investigating, whether or not there have been changes to how judges reach the bench.
Data can help you pinpoint the impact of the decisions made by justices, cutting through the fog of judicial opinions and the legal arguments of the parties.
In our reporting on North Carolina’s Supreme Court, we decided to focus on one case in particular, about felony disenfranchisement. A lower court ruled in 2022 that barring people on probation, parole and post-release supervision from voting was unconstitutional. That instantly restored the voting rights of about 56,000 North Carolinians — before the state’s high court clawed that back this April.
Data from the State Board of Elections that included the names of tens of thousands of people affected by the lower court’s decision was key to the reporting. It allowed us to map where the decision had a disproportionate impact, and to find individual people impacted by the rulings.
Find people directly impacted
It’s one thing to report that a court decision will affect people’s lives. It’s another to document concrete impacts in a specific person’s life. These personal stories will help your reporting resonate with readers and show the human stakes of the decisions made by the people in black robes.
First, it helps to identify significant cases where the ruling may have marked a turning point in someone’s life. Legal experts in the state may be able to help there.
Then, consider a roadmap for how you will find individual people. Think bigger than just the parties directly involved in the case. In our North Carolina reporting, we were able to compare a dataset of people who had their right to vote restored with historical data on voting. This allowed us to identify hundreds of people who voted in the 2022 midterms, thanks to the lower court ruling.
We started calling them. Many had emotional stories about what the experience meant to them.
State supreme court cases impact just about every beat. Whether you cover climate change, education, law enforcement, healthcare or something else entirely, there’s a story to tell about how political and judicial power ripple through people’s lives.
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