In one of the nation’s most important political battlegrounds, the future of election laws, abortion rights and more could hinge on the outcome of an April race for a seat that will determine control of the State Supreme Court.
Power in Wisconsin — the tipping point state in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections — is split between a Democratic governor, Tony Evers, and a Republican-controlled legislature.
The split has placed the state Supreme Court, where conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority, at the center of fierce partisan battles over several key issues, including abortion rights, election challenges and legislative constituencies. and Congress.
And because Wisconsin is one of 14 states to directly elect Supreme Court justices, the race between Janet Protasiewicz, the liberal Milwaukee County judge, and Daniel Kelly, the former conservative Supreme Court justice of state, has shattered statewide court race spending records, with more than $30 million in television advertising already flooding the state airwaves ahead of the April 4 election.
The two are battling to replace Justice Patience Roggensack, a conservative. A Protasiewicz victory would tip the balance of power on the seven-member court.
Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said the implications of the Supreme Court race cannot be overstated for the state and the nation.
“This election is the most important election in the nation of 2023 because Wisconsin is the swing state for presidential elections,” Wikler said in an interview Tuesday. “Whoever wins the Supreme Court race will have the deciding vote on issues like voting rights rulings, our abortion ban, and even potentially whether to overturn the results of the presidential election. of 2024.”
The court played a pivotal role in Wisconsin’s 2020 election outcome: Justices voted 4-3, with conservative Brian Hagedorn joining the court’s three liberals, to reject efforts by former President Donald Trump to dismiss ballots in Democratic-leaning counties.
The court also shaped Wisconsin’s election laws. He has voted in recent years to ban ballot boxes and selected cards that cemented a solid Republican majority in the state legislature.
The April 4 election will set the stage for the 2024 presidential race, with the court likely to be asked to weigh in on election rules again, including the state’s voter ID law, and potentially to settle another round of legal challenges afterwards.
Those high stakes have turned the state Supreme Court race into one of the nation’s most watched contests in 2023.
“It’s going to be tight,” former President Barack Obama said Tuesday in a Tweeter urging Wisconsin voters to vote early.
The focal point of the race, however, has been abortion, after the 1849 law prohibiting abortion in almost all cases went into effect following the United States Supreme Court’s ruling the last year to overturn Roe v. Wade and leave abortion laws to the states.
A lawsuit challenging that 1849 law could reach the state Supreme Court as early as this fall. And while the two candidates refuse to say how they would govern, they leave little doubt about their leanings.
In their lone debate on Tuesday, Protasiewicz said she was “not making any promises” about how she would govern. But she also noted her personal support for abortion rights, as well as endorsements from abortion rights groups. And she pointed to Kelly’s endorsement by Wisconsin Right to Life, which opposes abortion rights.
“If my opponent is elected, I can tell you with 100% certainty that the 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books. I can tell you that,” Protasiewicz said.
Kelly replied that Protasiewicz’s comments were “absolutely wrong”.
“You don’t know what I think of this abortion ban,” he said. “You have no idea. These things you don’t know.
Yet pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion forces have poured money and volunteer hours into the race.
Gracie Skogman, legislative director of Wisconsin Right to Life, said hundreds of volunteers across the state are rallying around the Supreme Court contest because of their deep opposition to abortion. She acknowledged it was a challenge to raise awareness for the April 4 election, but said voters would be motivated to support Kelly.
“We have a massive base — thousands of people across the state — but we need to get them on board,” Skogman said in an interview. “From a pro-life perspective, there is more at stake in this election than ever before in our state.”
Although Kelly hasn’t explicitly said he would oppose expanding abortion rights, Skogman said his story on the issue convinced his group he would.
“Our endorsement is based on his forensic philosophy,” Skogman said. “Judge Kelly is very clear that he does not believe in bench legislation and is seeking to uphold our state constitution. And that’s what makes us confident in his approval.
Protasiewicz has been on the ballot before, running for Milwaukee County judge, but has never faced a statewide election. For months his campaign ran TV ads trying to teach Wisconsin voters how to say his name, literally spelling out the on-screen pronunciation: “Pro-tuh-say-witz!”
In an interview at the state Capitol on Tuesday, following her debate with Kelly, she said the high stakes of the election had not been overstated — from abortion politics, gerrymandering and laws elections.
“The results of the 2024 presidential election should also be submitted to the Supreme Court,” Protasiewicz told CNN. “The 10 electoral votes we have here are very, very much sought after.”
She significantly outspent her opponent, thanks in large part to a multi-million dollar injection from the Wisconsin Democratic Party. If she wins, she has pledged to recuse herself from matters directly involving the party.
But she said she would not back down from business regarding the upcoming presidential election.
“I don’t think the Democratic Party would be one of the plaintiffs or defendants in this case,” she said. “Last time, I believe it was Trump versus Biden, so I don’t think the party itself would be on board.”
When asked if that made a distinction without difference, she replied, “I don’t think so.”
“I could probably still be fair on the cases involving the party, but I just think the optics are really bad,” she said. “You want citizens to absolutely believe that their Supreme Court is fair, impartial, and acts with integrity and independence.”
She declined to say how she would rule in specific cases, including the state’s 1849 law effectively banning abortion in Wisconsin, but said her rulings would “support her values.” She has made it clear that she supports abortion rights and believes state law following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade is wrong.
She has portrayed her rival as an extremist, running ads about his involvement in the state Republican Party’s plan to create a fake voters list for Trump.
“He is a total threat to our democracy,” Protasiewicz said, echoing a central mantra of his campaign.
In an interview on Wednesday, Kelly dismissed the suggestion as “alarmist” and accused his rival of putting politics above the law.
“We have a very tough choice ahead of us,” Kelly said. “Are we going to continue with the Rule of Law or are we going to swap it out for Janet’s Rule instead?”
He brushed off criticism from his previous employment with the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Republican National Committee. He described them simply as his legal clients.
He said the 2024 presidential campaign — and Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes — should not be part of the discussion in the Supreme Court race.
“I have no idea what this might do for the 2024 presidential election, nor is it relevant for this race,” Kelly told CNN. “Our only job is to resolve legal issues that the people of Wisconsin bring to us and we do so in accordance with applicable law, without reference to its political implications.”
Although he was endorsed by three of the state’s largest anti-abortion groups, Kelly said he made no promises to them and did not indicate how he would adjudicate the cases in court.
“The conversations I had with them are the same conversations I had with literally everyone in the state of Wisconsin: what kind of lawyer would you be, they asked me?” said Kelly. “I told them that I was the kind of lawyer who applies the law as it currently exists insofar as it is in accordance with the Constitution. And I do so without regard to my personal opinions or my personal politics.
He said the millions of dollars that came into the state from outside liberal groups were misguided and could backfire, saying, “We can pretty much mind our own business here in Wisconsin.”
“Let’s just say that if Janet wins, she will forever be known as the lawyer bought and paid for by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to be part of it.”