Thirty-five states held state supreme court elections in 2020. In total, 78 of the nation’s 344 state supreme court seats were up for election. At 23%, this was the greatest number of seats up for election in recent years.
Of these seats, at the start of 2020:
- 59 were held by nonpartisan justices
- 12 were held by Republican justices
- Seven were held by Democratic justices
Out of 29 retention elections, 28 justices (97%) won retention. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride was the only justice who did not win retention in 2020.
The incumbent win rate for non-retention elections was not quite as high as for retention elections. Out of 41 incumbents, 37 (90%) won their elections in 2020. Two incumbents lost in partisan elections and two incumbents lost in nonpartisan elections. The overall incumbent win rate was 93% in 2020.
In 2020, Ballotpedia conducted a study in which we examined the partisan affiliations of state supreme court justices. In our work, we gathered a variety of data on 341 active state supreme court justices across the 50 states to understand their partisan affiliations. Based on this research, we placed each justice in categories indicating our confidence in their affiliations with either the Democratic or Republican Parties.
Using public voter registration data, media reports, and Ballotpedia’s study of judicial partisanship, we determined the partisan balances on state supreme courts.
In the 2020 elections, 42 justices with some Republican affiliation won state supreme court seats while 24 justices with some Democrat affiliation won state supreme court seats. There were eight justices with indeterminate partisan affiliations who won state supreme court seats.
As of December 9, four seats had flipped partisanship in 2020. Three of these seats flipped from Republican to Democrat while one switched from Democrat to Republican. Seats switched from Republican to Democrat in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, while one seat flipped from Democrat to Republican in North Carolina. North Carolina has the potential to see one more seat flip from Democrat to Republican if Paul Newby maintains his lead over incumbent Cheri Beasley in the race for Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. As of December 9, Newby had a 401 vote lead pending a hand-to-eye recount at the request of Beasley’s campaign.
The only court to flip its partisan majority in 2020 was Michigan. Justice Bridget Mary McCormack (D) held her place as Chief Justice, and Elizabeth Welch (D) won retiring Justice Stephen Markman’s (R) seat. The partisan balance on the court flipped to 4-3, with Democrats controlling the court. At the time of the election, four of the seven justices on the court were appointed by Republican governors to fill vacancies. Three of the justices on the court advanced from Democratic conventions before winning general elections.