A Democratic-backed Milwaukee judge won the high stakes Wisconsin Supreme Court race Tuesday, ensuring liberals will take over majority control of the court for the first time in 15 years with the fate of the state's abortion ban pending.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz defeated former Justice Dan Kelly, who previously worked for Republicans and had support from the state's leading anti-abortion groups. It's his second loss in a race for Supreme Court in three years.
The new court controlled 4-3 by liberals is expected to decide a pending lawsuit challenging the state's 1849 law banning abortion. Protasiewicz made the issue a focus of her campaign and won the support of Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups.
The court is also expected to hear a new challenge to Republican-drawn legislative maps. Protasiewicz ran as a critic of the current maps, calling them "rigged."
The court came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden's win in the state in 2020, and both major parties are preparing for another close race in 2024.
With so much at stake, the race became the most expensive contest for a state Supreme Court seat in U.S. history. Protasiewicz will begin her 10-year term in August. She replaces retiring conservative Justice Pat Roggensack.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been under conservative control for 15 years, serving as the final word on a wide array of Republican policies enacted by the GOP-controlled Legislature. The court came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden's narrow win in 2020.
Democratic-backed candidate Janet Protasiewicz, 60, faces Republican-backed Dan Kelly, 58, in a contest that has nearly tripled the $15 million cost of a 2004 Illinois tilt that had been the most expensive court race in U.S. history.
After polls closed Tuesday, all eyes were on the outcome of a race that will determine whether Democratic-backed justices take control of the high court for at least the next two years, including the run-up and aftermath of the 2024 presidential election. Four of the past six presidential elections in Wisconsin have been decided by less than a percentage point and Trump turned to the courts in 2020 in his unsuccessful push to overturn his roughly 21,000-vote loss in the state.
Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County judge, largely focused her campaign around abortion, saying she supports abortion rights but stopping short of saying how she would rule on a pending lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's 174-year-old ban that was enacted a year after statehood. She called Kelly an "extreme partisan" and claimed that if he wins, Kelly would uphold the ban. Kelly has not said how he would rule.
Kelly has expressed opposition to abortion in the past, including in a 2012 blog post in which he said the Democratic Party and the National Organization for Women were committed to normalizing the taking of human life. He also has done legal work for Wisconsin Right to Life.
Kelly is a former justice who has also performed work for Republicans and advised them on a plan to have fake GOP electors cast their ballots for Trump following the 2020 election even though Trump had lost. He is endorsed by the state's top three anti-abortion groups, while Protasiewicz is backed by Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights advocates.
Protasiewicz called Kelly "a true threat to our democracy" because of his advising on the fake elector scheme..
Kelly was appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, in 2016. He served four years before being defeated in 2020 on the same ballot as the Democratic presidential primary. Kelly was endorsed by Trump that year.
Trump did not endorse this year. Protasiewicz's endorsements include Hillary Clinton.
Kelly tried to distance himself from his work for Republicans, saying it was "irrelevant" to how he would work as a justice. He tried to make the campaign about Protasiewicz's record as a judge, arguing that she was soft on crime and accusing her of being "bought and paid for" by Democrats.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party gave Protasiewicz's campaign more than $8 million, leading her to promise to recuse herself from any case brought by the party. Kelly refused to promise to step down from any case brought by his supporters, which include the state chamber of commerce.
In addition to abortion, Protasiewicz was outspoken on Wisconsin's gerrymandered legislative maps, calling them "rigged." Kelly accused her of prejudging that case, abortion and others that could come before the court.
The state Supreme Court upheld Republican-drawn maps in 2022. Those maps, widely regarded as among the most gerrymandered in the country, have helped Republicans increase their hold on the state Legislature to near supermajority levels, even as Democrats have won statewide elections, including Tony Evers as governor in both 2018 and 2022 and Biden in 2020.
The winner will serve a 10-year term starting in August replacing retiring conservative Justice Pat Roggensack. She is part of the current 4-3 conservative majority.