Republicans hold and expand power in state supreme courts Republican wins in state supreme court races could not only shape abortion and voting rights, but also the balance of power in Washington.

How GOP state supreme court wins could change state policies and who runs Congress

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices are appointed, many states elected new state Supreme Court justices this midterm. In recent years, these races have grown more expensive and more openly partisan. NPR's Laura Benshoff reports on how GOP wins in Ohio and North Carolina will influence state policy and even the balance of power in Washington.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: This year, Ohioans reelected three Republican state Supreme Court justices. That means they'll keep their majority, but who is at the head will change.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, Ohio's next Chief Justice, Sharon Kennedy.

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BENSHOFF: Sharon Kennedy is a former police officer. She's spoken at anti-abortion events while on the bench. On election night, she promised to expand on her work with veterans and make the courts faster and more transparent.

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SHARON KENNEDY: It is morning again at the Supreme Court of Ohio. Thank you for your time.

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BENSHOFF: The Supreme Court of Ohio already leaned conservative, but Kennedy is likely to pull it further to the right, says Jonathan Entin, law professor at Case Western Reserve University.

JONATHAN ENTIN: Justice Kennedy was perhaps the most conservative justice on the court.

BENSHOFF: Kennedy will now be the one presiding, for example, if the court hears a challenge to Ohio's ban on abortion after six weeks and when it evaluates new voting district maps. The outgoing Republican chief justice sided with Democrats and tossed out proposed maps, not once, not twice, but five times for unfairly advantaging Republicans. With Kennedy at the helm, GOP lawmakers may get those maps after all. Here's Entin again.

ENTIN: It's pretty clear that elected officials, at least the Republican-elected officials, have been waiting out the court.

BENSHOFF: Here's where Ohio's justices influence the rest of the country as well. Those maps not only shape which party controls the state legislature but also how many Democrats and Republicans Ohio is likely to send to Congress. And margins in the U.S. House of Representatives are slim. Douglas Keith with the Brennan Center for Justice says that means state court decisions like this one could tip the scales in Washington.

DOUGLAS KEITH: These courts have significant power, especially in this moment, to determine how our federal government is functioning, not just the state government.

BENSHOFF: Ohio is just one example of how high stakes these state Supreme Court races have become. That's because the U.S. Supreme Court has pushed some key decisions down to the states. Keith says while these races always had some campaign donors, they're now getting a lot more funding from national partisan groups and PACs.

KEITH: The fact that even more of this money is opaque should be especially troubling, given the fact that judges aren't supposed to operate like other political actors.

BENSHOFF: This year, Democrats spent big to hold benches in Illinois and Michigan, and major spending helped Republicans pull off a dramatic flip in North Carolina.

BOB EDMUNDS: It's a seven-person court. It went from being four Democrats and three Republicans to being five Republicans and two Democrats.

BENSHOFF: That's former Republican State Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds. He says he's seen the court become more politicized since he lost a race for reelection in 2016. In North Carolina, the new Republican majority on the state Supreme Court is likely to hear many significant cases, on that state's own voting districts, on education. But Edmunds says among the most important are cases dealing with voting rules.

EDMUNDS: Which impact where a person can vote, how they can vote, what they need to do to be able to vote. That hits home in a way you wouldn't necessarily expect.

BENSHOFF: He says that's because it gets at whether American voters feel free to vote and like their votes count. Laura Benshoff, NPR News.

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