Liberals won a majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court last night as Milwaukee Judge Janet Protasiewicz defeated conservative former state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly in a bitter, close-fought race with national implications.
Protasiewicz won with 55% of the vote Tuesday. The Associated Press called the race less than an hour after polls closed at 8 p.m. local time.
“It is the absolute honor of a lifetime to be elected as your next justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” Protasiewicz said in her victory speech. Voters, she said, had “chosen to reject partisan extremism in this state.”
The race attracted national attention and outsized spending. Outside groups, including political parties and dark money organizations, poured at least $45 million into the nonpartisan election, making the race the most expensive for a supreme court seat in American history, according to the nonprofit news site Wisconsin Watch.
With Protasiewicz’s win, Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban is likely to be overturned. The procedure has been illegal in the state since June 2022, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the decision that affirmed a national constitutional right to abortion. State Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, is leading a legal challenge to the law in a case that is expected to reach the state Supreme Court.
The state’s legislative maps, which have been extensively gerrymandered by Republicans, will likely fall as well.
Liberals will have the final say in adjudicating election law cases, which could prove decisive in 2024. The formerly conservative-controlled court nearly overturned President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election in the state. The court only upheld his victory over former President Donald Trump when conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn voted with the liberal side.
The tone of the race was sharply negative. At its only debate, in March, Protasiewicz and Kelly characterized each other as existential threats to the rule of law in Wisconsin and accused each other of lying repeatedly.
“I am running against one of the most extreme partisan characters in the history of the state,” Protasiewicz said.
Many of Kelly’s attacks focused on Protasiewicz’s handling of criminal sentencing in cases involving sexual assault and other violent crimes.
But Kelly’s camp had to pull back in the final days of the race when a rape survivor whose case was at the center of a widely aired anti-Protasiewicz ad told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she had been retraumatized by the spot
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Issues, the advocacy wing of the state’s largest business lobby and a key donor to state Republicans, paid for the ad along with Fair Courts America, a political action committee heavily funded by far-right megadonors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein.
The survivor told the Journal Sentinel that she had been repeatedly contacted by the makers of the ad, which highlighted the two-year sentence Protasiewicz handed down before it aired.
Two days after the story broke, WMCI pulled the ad.
Protasiewicz will be sworn in on Aug. 1, after which the court will have a 4-3 liberal majority.
The next opportunity for conservatives to regain control of the court will be in 2025 when liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley will be up for reelection.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.