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Alabama IVF ruling highlights relevance of state supreme court races

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Alabama IVF ruling highlights relevance of state supreme court races

CHICAGO (AP) — Alabama’s recent ruling that frozen embryos are legally considered children created a political storm after the decision halted treatment for many couples seeking to have children through fertility treatments. It has also drawn attention to the importance of institutions that are poised to play a central role in this year’s U.S. elections: state supreme courts.

Decisions by state supreme courts have become especially crucial in the nearly two years since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion. This year, races for state supreme court seats are expected to be some of the most expensive and close on the ballot. At stake are future decisions on abortion, other reproductive rights, redistricting, voting rights, and other critical issues.

“This is where the action is,” said Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland.

The Republican-majority Alabama Supreme Court’s Feb. 16 ruling that frozen embryos created through in vitro fertilization be considered children in state law has unexpectedly made IVF an emerging campaign issue. With fertility treatments in the state halted by numerous providers who fear criminal charges or punitive damages, the Republican-controlled Legislature is under pressure to find a solution.

After the United States Supreme Court in 2022 overturned the Roe vs. ruling. Wade, eliminating federal protection of abortion rights, the decision set off a wave of initiatives in the states, from laws to lawsuits that have frequently ended up before state supreme courts. Those cases have magnified the consequences of having liberals or conservatives in control of the majority of votes in those courts.

“Many people might not have realized that state supreme courts can decide these types of issues that have such a direct impact on their daily lives,” Hill said. “But this Alabama ruling is a reminder that these courts have so much power, especially now, over people’s rights.”

This year’s elections bring 80 contests for supreme court seats in 33 states, including some like Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia, where partisan control is at stake. At least four states will have races for state supreme court seats on Super Tuesday, including Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina and Texas. In others, including Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon and West Virginia, elections will be held throughout the spring.

In Alabama, five of the nine seats on the all-Republican Supreme Court appear on the ballot. Chief Justice Tom Parker, 72, who cited Bible verses and Christian theologians in his concurring opinion on the IVF case, is ineligible for another term because the Alabama Constitution does not allow judges over 70 to be elected. chosen.

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Since the reversal of the Roe ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, about 40 lawsuits challenging abortion bans have been filed in 23 states, and many have reached state supreme courts, part of activists’ efforts to find protections for the right to abortion in state constitutions. abortion.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 30 state supreme courts have decided cases challenging abortion restrictions under their states’ constitutions. Of these, 12 have recognized the protection of the right to abortion in state constitutions, while four have denied that their state constitution protects this right. Other state supreme courts have upheld or blocked abortion restrictions without explicitly ruling on whether their state constitution protects the right to terminate a pregnancy.

These rulings have had direct consequences for those trying to access abortion services. In December, the Texas Supreme Court overturned a court order that would have allowed a Dallas woman to have an abortion after her case of being forced to leave the state to terminate her unviable pregnancy sparked national outrage.

Abortion rights are just one recent example of how the U.S. Supreme Court is delegating to states to make determinations on high-stakes issues, said Douglas Keith, senior counsel in the judicial program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which conducts a monitoring spending in judicial contests. The federal Supreme Court has also refrained from ruling on issues such as partisan redistricting and voting rights, often leaving state supreme courts to have the final say on these issues.

“The Dobbs decision and others made clear that these courts would be the ones to decide these fundamental questions at a time when the United States Supreme Court was taking a step back from protecting certain rights,” Keith said.

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State courts also intervene in the process of getting statewide citizen initiatives to the ballot, often deciding disputes over the technical requirements of petitions and the signature-gathering process. This year they will play a key role as reproductive rights groups try to present abortion protections to voters in several states.

State supreme courts are expected to rule on such planned measures in Florida, Missouri and Nevada.

In January, Florida’s Republican attorney general asked the state Supreme Court to keep a proposed abortion rights amendment off the ballot. In Missouri, an appeals court ruled in October that summaries written by Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft — an abortion opponent who is running for governor — were politically partisan and misleading. The Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear Ashcroft’s appeal of the ruling.

A Nevada district judge approved in January that a petition to place an abortion rights measure on the ballot was eligible for signature collection, despite a legal challenge by anti-abortion groups. In November, the judge had rejected an earlier, much broader petition, which included protections for prenatal care, postpartum care, vasectomies, tubal ligations, miscarriages and infertility. Nevadans for Reproductive Freedoms, the group behind the petition, appealed that rejection to the Nevada Supreme Court and is awaiting a ruling.

Activists also aim to put abortion rights on the ballot in Arizona, where Republican governors have appointed all seven justices to the Supreme Court.

“In many cases, state supreme courts have a lot of power to block direct democracy by preventing an issue from reaching the ballot,” said Brian Fitzpatrick, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School.

Strategies to derail ballot initiatives are part of a plan created by anti-abortion groups in other states, including Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly decided last year to enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution.

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Even with voter approval, the Ohio Supreme Court will be the “final arbiter” of how to interpret the constitutional amendment and how it will affect existing abortion laws, said Hill, the Case Western law professor who served as a consultant. in Ohio’s campaign to enshrine abortion rights. This means that this year’s races for seats on the state Supreme Court, which will begin with a primary on March 19, will be vital to abortion rights in the state, as well as other issues such as redistricting, environment and criminal justice, he indicated.

With three seats up for voting and a current 4-3 Republican majority, Democrats have a chance to shift the court’s majority trend for the first time since 1986, while Republicans will try to expand their control.

The outcome of a heated race in Wisconsin last year has already had repercussions, after that state’s Supreme Court moved to a liberal majority for the first time in 15 years.

In December, Wisconsin’s new Supreme Court struck down Republican-drawn legislative maps and ordered new district lines drawn. Wisconsin is a politically swing state, but also one where there has been the most redistricting in the country, allowing Republicans to have very large majorities in the Legislature. A lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s abortion ban could also go to the state Supreme Court.

“There have been immediate consequences for redistricting that have fundamentally reshaped politics in Wisconsin,” said Kyle Kondik, editor-in-chief of a newsletter on elections and campaigns published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “This shows how important these races are.”


The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to improve its coverage of elections and democracy. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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