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July 15, 2024 9:30 am

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court Has an Open Seat. Here’s Who’s Running.

Credit: iStock

Nick Vachon

The race could determine whether liberals or conservatives have the majority on the court, which has implications for a slew of contentious issues and the 2024 presidential election.

Four candidates so far have announced their campaigns for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, an election that has huge implications for the state.

Two liberals and two conservatives are running for the seat open due to the retirement of Justice Patience D. Roggensack, who consistently voted with the court’s conservative block. Her departure has opened the opportunity for liberals to hold a majority on the court for the first time since 2008.

In recent years, the court has made critical rulings on the power of the state executive branch, voting rights, ballot access, and labor rights. The court will likely hear a challenge this term to the state’s 175-year-old law banning abortion, which went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

All the candidates standing for election have experience in the state judiciary. Three currently serve as county judges: Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell, both liberals, and Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow, a conservative. The fourth candidate, conservative and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2016 and lost to liberal Justice Jill Karofsky in the 2020 election.

Protasiewicz, a former assistant district attorney and a twice-elected Milwaukee judge, told the Wisconsin Examiner that the court’s conservative majority makes decisions counter to the interests of Wisconsinites: “The court needs change, the court really needs to change. Those four seats have voted in such a block, so consistently, and with results that, in my opinion, are so unfair to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin.”

However, the Examiner reported, she said she had no plans to recreate a liberal mirror image of the conservative block. Instead, she believes that voters shouldn’t feel “like there’s already a thumb on the scale and that you’re not going to get a fair shake.”

Protasiewicz has already collected more than 800 endorsements from public figures, including an endorsement from sitting state Justice Rebecca Dallet, a member of the court’s liberal wing.

Mitchell, who is originally from Texas and became an ordained minister at 23 before getting his law degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the presiding judge of Dane County’s juvenile division.

“I’m running for the Wisconsin Supreme Court because preserving the integrity and independence of the court has never been more important,” Mitchell said in a statement announcing his campaign last June. “Wisconsinites deserve a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice that reflects the growing diversity of ideas and communities within our state.”

According to the Associated Press, Kelly, who served four years on the court, warned about the dangers of an “activist” winning the open seat.

He cautioned that if one of the liberal justices wins, “Wisconsin’s public policy would be imposed by four lawyers sitting in Madison instead of being adopted through our constitutional processes. I won’t let that happen on my watch.”

Dorow, the other conservative, presided over the trial of Darrell E. Brooks, who drove his SUV through a Christmas parade in the city of Waukesha in 2021. Dorow sentenced Brooks to life in prison without parole.

Ben Winkler, the chair of the state Democratic Party, said in a statement released after she announced her campaign for the Supreme Court seat that Dorow “is entering this race as yet another extremist Scott Walker appointee.” According to the website WisPolitics, Winkler said, “Judge Dorow has already voiced that she thinks Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision which decriminalized LGBTQ relationships, is among the ‘worst Supreme Court decisions of all time.'”

The court has played an important role in upholding the Republican-controlled state Legislature’s gerrymander of legislative districts. In a decision earlier this year, the court selected a heavily gerrymandered electoral map by a vote of 4-3, further cementing the GOP’s advantage in the Assembly and Senate.

An analysis of the GOP redistricting plan by University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor Robert Yablon found that it was the most gerrymandered map adopted by a state court in the last 22 years. Despite winning all three major statewide races — governor, attorney general, and secretary of state — Democrats, encumbered by the gerrymander, only narrowly blocked a Republican supermajority in the Legislature that would have allowed the GOP to override Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ veto power.

According to PBS Wisconsin, Democrats view the upcoming Supreme Court election as their best opportunity to dismantle the GOP gerrymander. A liberal majority could throw out the Republican-drawn map and require that the state implement a more competitive electoral map if there’s a legal challenge.

Candidates have already attracted substantial funding commitments in a race that is on track to break fundraising records, according to PBS Wisconsin’s Zac Schultz. Already, Fair Courts America, a multistate super PAC funded in part by the conservative billionaire Richard Uihlein, has pledged to spend millions of dollars to elect Kelly, according to a statement issued by PAC spokesman Dan Curry.

The primary election, which will winnow the field of candidates down to two, is on Feb. 21.

The top two vote-getters will face off in the April 4 general election.

This story was written by Nick Vachon, a reporter at The American Independent, where this story first appeared.