In September, Piper Fund hosted two funder briefings focused on threats and opportunities related to state courts. The briefings, which featured state and national advocates, highlighted the “heroes and villains of judicial independence,” acknowledging the powerful forces seeking to undermine state courts’ authority and the heroic efforts of under-resourced advocacy groups working tirelessly to combat these blatant attacks. Several key takeaways emerged from the two hours of rich discussion.
Despite the fact 95% of court decisions happen in state courts, many funders previously considered them to be a remote concern.
The vital role state courts played in upholding the results of the 2020 election, and SCOTUS’s ruling on Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health, which brought decisions about abortion care access down to the states, have highlighted the critical importance of protecting state courts’ independence. Factor in the upcoming election – the outcome of which some candidates are already refusing to say they will accept – and other major issues where states courts may be the last line of defense, such as voting rights and environmental protections,, and it’s clear the need to insulate them from outside influence has hardly been greater.
While legislation passed by state lawmakers is a primary vehicle for assaults on state courts, the “villains” behind these attacks are wealthy individuals and corporations who seek to control our democracy. Advocates from the Arkansas Public Policy Panel spoke about the alarming unethical conduct of elected officials in their state, unabashedly accepting funds and favors from special interests. Dark money PACs were also behind harmful rhetoric released after the 2020 election to help sow distrust in the results, with spending estimates on these campaigns in the billions. Recognizing the importance of state courts, extremist forces have worked for years to bend them to their will. Now, with rights being rolled back on the federal level, efforts to dilute state courts’ authority will undoubtedly continue to intensify.
Outside of election cycles, special interest groups are continuously pursuing ways of undermining judicial independence. These tactics include creating new levels of courts and then hand-picking which judges hear in these newly created courts. There are examples of court budgets being completely cut or reduced because either the executive or legislative branch or both disagree with a court’s decision.
Highly impactful multi-directional, multi-issue coalitions are using a comprehensive ecosystem of strategies to help connect the dire need to protect state courts to a spectrum of issues, from abortion to education. This work will take time and long-term funding for organizations that will allow them to have a nimble, flexible response to attacks as they arise.
Piper Fund has a plan for helping to support these heroes. To learn how you can be a part of it, contact Kathy Bonnifield.