State Supreme Court race could decide future of reproductive rights in NC

AP Photo/Makiya Seminera

By Dylan Rhoney

May 22, 2024

The Court has the final say on legal matters in the state, and could make major decisions regarding abortion rights and other key issues in the coming years. Republicans currently hold a 5-2 majority on the court.

A seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court is up for grabs in November, when voters will decide who sits on the most powerful court in the state—and who has the final say on some of the most important legal issues in the state, such as reproductive freedom.

Republicans currently hold a 5-2 majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court and Justice Allison Riggs, one of the two Democrats on the court, is up for re-election in November. Riggs will face Judge Jefferson Griffin, a Republican and former Wake County Superior Court Judge who currently sits on the Court of Appeals.

While a Riggs’ victory in November wouldn’t secure Democrats a majority, it would give them the chance to win back control in 2028, while a defeat would make the road back to a majority even longer.

Crucially, the result of this year’s election could have long-term implications for the direction of the court, and how it rules on a variety of issues, including abortion rights.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade and the role of state courts

Almost two years ago, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed a constitutional right to an abortion. In doing so, the court returned the issue of abortion rights to the states, which could each choose whether to protect or ban abortion

Since then, 17 states have passed outright or six-week abortion bans—which is before many women even know they’re pregnant—and others, like North Carolina, have also imposed severe restrictions on abortion care.

But it’s not just lawmakers who are influencing abortion laws. Judges are too.

“When the majority and the political folks around said they were ‘sending it back to the states’—what it meant was that the states were going to enact laws restricting reproductive freedom, and then ultimately it would get tested in the state courts,” Justice Riggs told Cardinal & Pine.

In recent months, state supreme courts in Florida and Arizona upheld strict abortion bans, while Alabama’s high court issued a ruling that called the future of fertility care into question.

The Supreme Court of North Carolina could similarly rule on key abortion and fertility measures in the coming years.

The looming threat of a total abortion ban

After Republicans passed a 12-week abortion ban last year, Speaker of the House Tim Moore did not rule out future legislative action, and stated that he personally supports a six week ban. Mark Robinson, the Republican nominee for governor, has also consistently expressed his belief that abortion should be banned in all cases, comparing it to “murder,” “genocide,” and “slavery.”

Last year, he pledged to sign a total abortion ban, even in cases of incest, rape, or if the mother’s life is at risk. In February, Robinson reiterated his support for a total ban and said he would support a 6-week ban as the next step towards ending abortion entirely in North Carolina.

Future abortion restrictions could work their way to the state Supreme Court, where the winner of this year’s race would be one of seven votes deciding whether to uphold or strike them down.

While IVF is currently legal in North Carolina, Robinson has not publicly stated whether he supports it or not, and Republicans in the General Assembly have declined to pass proactive protections ensuring the procedure is not endangered in the future, despite calls to do so from Democrats, including Attorney General Josh Stein, the Democratic nominee for governor.

Where Riggs and Griffin stand on reproductive rights

Riggs says that as a judge, she’s tasked with applying the law on a case-by-case basis and can’t comment on how she’d rule on specific cases. But she’s also open about her values.

“When we talk about bodily autonomy, and our right to make decisions for ourselves, and a right to enjoy some privacy about what happens in our body, these are values that I espouse that I believe have constitutional origins, but I’m not deciding anything or saying how I’m going to rule on any reproductive freedom case,” she said. “I’m telling you what my values are, and I think that it’s important that people ask folks running for judicial office, particularly in a [post- Roe] world, what their values are with respect to reproductive freedom.”

Griffin, meanwhile, has drawn scrutiny for his record on reproductive rights. He was part of a three-judge panel that issued a ruling last year finding that a woman in Durham could be stripped of custody rights due to actions she took during her pregnancy.

In the ruling, Griffin, along with Judge Hunter Murphy, cited state law that allows parents to lose their custody rights if other children in the home are abused, but added an extra layer applying this to unborn children, stating in their ruling that “life begins at conception,” citing a ruling from the 1940s that applied to a case focused on the inheritance of unborn children.

Griffin and Murphy ultimately withdrew the opinion, but the idea that “life begins at conception” is central to the anti-abortion movement and was central to the Alabama court’s opinion on IVF.

Cardinal & Pine asked Griffin via email about the decision, and if he believes applying “life begins at conception,” to the ruling was a mistake, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

While Democrats can’t win back a majority on the court this year, or in 2026, a Riggs defeat would mean the earliest they could regain their majority would be 2030, all but guaranteeing a conservative majority that is likely to support restrictions to abortion rights sits on the court for most of the next decade.

Author

  • Dylan Rhoney

    Dylan Rhoney is an App State grad from Morganton who is passionate about travel, politics, history, and all things North Carolina. He lives in Raleigh.

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