2018 Saw a Spate of Partisan Attacks on State Courts

A political effort to impeach the entire West Virginia Supreme Court. A ballot measure aimed at giving North Carolina’s Legislature sweeping new powers to pick judges. And a bid by lawmakers to punish Arkansas’s top court for an adverse ruling on a politically charged issue.

A new Brennan Center analysis finds that attempts by state legislators to politicize or weaken courts were particularly widespread this year. That’s troubling, because when politicians drag courts and judges into the partisan muck, it becomes harder for courts to be, and appear, independent from the political actors they’re supposed to check. The three-legged stool of our democracy can stand only if the three branches are equally able to check each other.

In all in 2018, lawmakers in at least 18 states considered at least 60 bills that would have diminished or politicized the role of the judiciary. Several stories stand out, and may foreshadow what’s ahead.

The North Carolina General Assembly continued a multi-year effort to gain an upper hand in the courts. In 2018 alone, this included largely unsuccessful proposals to gerrymander judicial districts and to cut judicial terms from eight years to two. In support of the latter proposal, one legislator remarked, referring to judges: “If you’re going to act like a legislator, perhaps you should run like one.”

The Legislature also asked North Carolina voters, via a ballot measure proposing a constitutional amendment, to give it sweeping new power to pick judges. In a positive sign, however, this plan met significant resistance, including litigation that forced the Legislature to rewrite the ballot language to be less misleading, and bipartisan opposition from all five living former governors. Voters ultimately rejected the plan by a 30-point margin.

Two states saw partisan efforts to remove sitting state supreme court justices. In Pennsylvania, Republican…

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