Progressives are paying more attention to state courts in an attempt to protect abortion access and other priorities while acknowledging they’re playing catch up.
“Lots of folks are already focused on state courts, unfortunately they’re all on the right,” Molly Coleman, executive director of the progressive young lawyers group People’s Parity Project.
“The right knew that if they succeeded at the federal level, this was going to move to the state courts, so they’ve been preparing for that and the left, once again, is behind,” Coleman said Saturday at a conference the organization hosted in Washington.
Focus on building a progressive legal pipeline for state courts and educating people about how those judges are selected was among the topics discussed at the weekend conference held two weeks after the high court’s ruling overturning federal protection of abortion rights in Dobbs v. Jackson.
There was a sense of pessimism at the event that the conservative-majority court is a poised to strike down policies progressives support. But speakers representing progressive groups also expressed cautious optimism about installing like minded judges and justices at the state court level.
“State courts are our last line of defense,” said Rachel Bracken, regional state courts manager at Alliance for Justice, who spoke on a panel about state court organizing.
Alliance for Justice, which has been advocating on judicial nominations for more than 40 years, introduced a state court project June 23, the day before the Dobbs decision. The project includes an online tool with information about the composition of state courts and how those jurists are selected.
People’s Parity Project will also have someone focused on state courts starting in a few weeks, Coleman said.
LaNita King, campaign director at Demand Justice, who also spoke on the state court’s panel, underscored the need for a long term plan to balance the state courts that goes beyond asking people to vote in the midterms.
“This isn’t going to be a fight that ends in November,” she said.
Building a pipeline of progressive judges in the states will look a lot like what it has at the federal level under the Biden administration, with a focus on candidates with backgrounds not traditionally represented on the bench, Bracken and King said.
The panelists encouraged the roughly 30 attendees at the session to think about judicial careers and learn about how judges are selected in their state. They also suggested attendees get involved in discussions about candidates.
Both Bracken and King were critical of nominating commissions used in some states to identify candidates for judgeships, mirroring similar criticisms at the federal level, and identified it as an area where change could happen.
In the early days of the Biden administration, progressive pressured senators to diversify or ditch their nominating commissions altogether. They saw the commissions, which have often been filled with big law partners and former federal prosecutors, as potential challenges to Biden’s efforts to select nominees from outside the traditional path.
Bracken said some senators have been responsive to that push. Senators with diverse commissions have produced diverse candidates, such as the group set up by Georgia’s two Democratic senators, Bracken said.
Their efforts to encourage young lawyers to consider a judicial path might be working.
At the beginning of the panel, speakers asked attendees to raise their hands if they were interested in being judges. One person, a civil rights lawyer, expressed interest. As the presentation came to an end, they asked the question again. At least three other attendees raised their hands.