Abortion is a growing focus in state supreme court elections More than 30 states have state supreme court elections this November. Those justices may be the final word on abortion laws in some places now that it's an issue for states to decide.

Some states are laser-focused on supreme court elections after the Dobbs ruling

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Change the state's constitution or elect new state Supreme Court justices? Those are the choices Republican lawmakers in Montana are eyeing now that the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision leaves abortion policy up to states. Abortion is legal in Montana. But reigning politics are fervently opposed to it. Shaylee Ragar with Montana Public Radio reports.

LOLA SHELDON-GALLOWAY: Louder. I want it three times louder.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: Vice chair of the Montana Republican Party Lola Sheldon-Galloway led a rallying cry at the end of a banquet to kick off the state party convention.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Brown. Rice. Brown. Rice.

RAGAR: The Republican delegates to the convention are chanting the names of two candidates running for seats on the Montana Supreme Court. Sitting Justice Jim Rice and attorney James Brown are seen as conservative candidates, although, the election is nonpartisan. Here's state GOP Chairman Don Kaltschmidt.

DON KALTSCHMIDT: Promise that we don't forget about James Brown and elect him to Montana Supreme Court.

(APPLAUSE)

RAGAR: There's a list of reasons Montana Republicans are laser-focused on the judiciary, at the top is to ban abortion. That's because in 1999, the state Supreme Court said Montana's constitutional right to privacy protects access to abortion here. Republicans are looking for a way around that precedent known as the Armstrong decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF LASZLOFFY: So at this point, we basically have two paths forward.

RAGAR: Jeff Laszloffy, a well-known conservative lobbyist, sent this audio update to conservative radio stations across the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LASZLOFFY: We can either amend the Montana Constitution to ban abortion. Or we can replace enough justices on the Montana Supreme Court to overturn the Armstrong decision.

RAGAR: In 2020, Republicans won all statewide elected offices and gained 10 seats in the state legislature. The state Supreme Court is the party's last territory to conquer. One Democrat who's advocated for abortion access since the 1960s is State Senator Diane Sands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIANE SANDS: This is not a problem that the federal government can solve.

RAGAR: She recently visited the White House for a roundtable with Vice President Kamala Harris and highlighted Republican legislation passed last year. It gave Montana's governor unilateral power to appoint judges to vacant positions in between elections. That was previously the job of an independent commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDS: In the long game, these forces in Montana are going after the Montana Constitution because they know it is the sole barrier to achieving their goal to making abortion illegal.

RAGAR: Montana Democrats are putting their weight behind incumbent State Justice Ingrid Gustafson, who faces James Brown in the general election. Democrats in Montana want to protect the Armstrong ruling, which isn't necessarily set in stone. In Iowa in 2018, for instance, the state Supreme Court overturned a precedent protecting abortion. Since Dobbs, state abortion law has already been put before state Supreme Courts in Utah, Michigan, Louisiana and Arizona, among others. Douglas Keith is counsel at the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, focused on the courts.

DOUGLAS KEITH: For lots of us, the importance of state Supreme Courts is really just coming into focus.

RAGAR: But that focus on state Supreme Courts, Keith says, has actually been growing since the 1980s. It's just become more widespread and spendy.

KEITH: In 1999, around seven states had judges who'd run a $1 million race. But by 2016, 20 states had a judge who'd run a $1 million race.

RAGAR: Those numbers are adjusted for inflation. This year, more than 30 states will hold elections for 86 seats on state Supreme Courts.

For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "LOVE IS THE ANSWER")

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