(AP) — Surrounded by states with abortion bans that took effect after Roe v. Wade fell, Illinois is one of the few places where the procedure remains legal in the Midwest.
Abortion-rights supporters are worried that might not last. Their concern is shared in at least a half-dozen states, and this year it's not just about state legislatures. In Illinois, Democrats hold a supermajority, and the governor, a Democrat, is expected to win reelection.
Instead, Republicans could be on the verge of winning control of the Illinois Supreme Court, where Democrats currently hold a 4-3 majority. Two seats are up for election in November, prompting groups that have normally set their sights on other offices to concentrate attention and money on the judicial campaigns.
“Those are the only things we're focused on, because whoever wins control of the court will decide whether abortion remains legal in Illinois," said Terry Cosgrove, president and CEO of Personal PAC, an abortion rights group that has endorsed the two Democrats running for the high court.
The same scene is playing out in other states with contentious high court races on the ballot this year. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe, state judicial races have become even more important for Democratic groups working to protect abortion rights.
“It’s increasingly clear that the way access is playing out is at the state level, which puts the role of the court in stark relief," said Sarah Standiford, national campaigns director for Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
The groups' involvement in states such as Illinois, Michigan and Ohio is a preview of how high-stakes normally sleepy court races are becoming.
In Illinois, Appellate Court Justice Mary Kay O'Brien is raising concerns about abortion rights as she runs against Republican Justice Michael Burke in a redrawn district for a seat currently held by a retiring Democratic justice.
“Now with Roe v. Wade being overturned, women’s freedom to choose in Illinois is at risk,” a recently launched ad for O’Brien says.
Meanwhile, the race for a court seat currently held by a Republican and covering counties northwest of Chicago pits Republican former Sheriff Mark Curran against Democrat Liz Rochford, a judge. Curran touted his opposition to abortion rights when he ran unsuccessfully for Senate two years ago.
About $97 million was spent on state supreme court elections during the 2019-2020 election cycle, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. Spending records could be shattered this year in states targeted by the right and left.
One group is Alliance for Justice Action Campaign, which supports abortion access. It plans to reach voters in Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio.
“We were already planning to be involved in these states, but Dobbs has heightened our interest and heightened our sense of purpose and sense of mission on it," said Jake Faleschini, the group's legal director for state courts, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The races' importance was underscored recently when the Michigan Supreme Court, where Democratic appointees hold a slim majority, overruled a decision by a state certification board and allowed a constitutional amendment ensuring abortion rights on the November ballot.
While Michigan's races are officially nonpartisan, the state's political parties nominate candidates. Democratic-backed Justice Richard Bernstein, who voted with the court's majority to keep the abortion rights amendment on the ballot, is seeking reelection against Republican Paul Hudson. Democratic Rep. Kyra Bolden hopes to unseat incumbent Republican Justice Brian Zahra, who voted against allowing the initiative on the ballot.
“Folks here in Michigan are angry about the Roe decision. And I think that when they’re looking for places to exercise their freedom to vote, they’re going to look to the Supreme Court,” state Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said.