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For the first time in 15 years, liberals win control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court

Judge Janet Protasiewicz delivers her victory speech after winning a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela
Angela Major
Judge Janet Protasiewicz delivers her victory speech after winning a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Democrats have scored a major off-year election victory in Wisconsin, winning the state's open supreme court seat and flipping control of the court to liberals for the first time in 15 years.

Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz won the hotly contested race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, according to a race call by The Associated Press, defeating former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly. Spending in the campaign shattered the previous national record for a state supreme court election.

The win by Protasiewicz comes at a pivotal time for the court, and for the Democratic voters who carried her to office. Justices are all but certain to hear a challenge to Wisconsin's pre-Civil Warabortion ban, and with a liberal majority, they're likely to consider a lawsuit that could overturn Wisconsin's Republican-drawnlegislative maps.

Barring the unexpected, the victory also assures that liberals will hold a majority on the court ahead of next year's presidential election, when Wisconsin — the perennial swing state — is expected to again be pivotal in the race for the White House. If election lawsuits are filed in state court, Protasiewicz will be one of the seven justices who have the final say.

As Protasiewicz approached the stage for her victory speech, the crowd at the Saint Kate hotel in downtown Milwaukee erupted, while some of her closest supporters danced on stage.

Toward the end of her speech, Protasiewicz was joined onstage by the three liberal justices she'll soon join on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

"Our state is taking a step forward to a better and brighter future where our rights and freedoms will be protected," Protasiewicz said. "And while there is still work to be done, tonight we celebrate this historic victory that has obviously reignited hope in so many of us.

Democrats' high hopes

Should the court redraw the maps and give Democrats a better chance of winning races for the legislature, they hope they could finallypush the state's political trajectory to the left. The court could also potentially redraw Wisconsin's congressional map, where Republicans currently hold six out of eight U.S House seats in an otherwise 50-50 state.

Protasiewicz was born and raised on Milwaukee's south side, spending 25 years as a prosecutor in the Milwaukee County District Attorney's office and most of the last decade as a judge.

While she never promised to rule one way or another on cases that come before the Supreme Court, Protasiewicz was especiallyopen about her politics during the campaign. On the issue of abortion, she said she believed women have a right to choose. When it came to redistricting, she called the state's Republican-drawn legislative maps "rigged."

Attendee Jenna Proudfit shouts to alert the room that the Wisconsin Supreme Court race had been called for Judge Janet Protasiewicz on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis.
Angela Major / WPR
Attendee Jenna Proudfit shouts to alert the room that the Wisconsin Supreme Court race had been called for Judge Janet Protasiewicz on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis.

Her campaign also relied more than any in history on the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's financial support, so much so that Protasiewicz vowed to recuse herself from cases involving the state party once she takes office.

Kelly's loss and the money

In his concession speech to supporters in Green Lake, Wis., Kelly had sharp words for Protasiewicz, saying she had "demeaned the judiciary" with her campaign.

"I respect the decision that the people of Wisconsin have made," Kelly said. "But I think this does not end well."

Throughout the campaign, Kellydownplayed his political views, but he broughta long Republican resume to the race. He was originally appointed to the court by former Republican Gov. Scott Walkerin 2016. Most of Kelly's career was spent as an attorney. In 2012, he defended Wisconsin's Republican-drawn legislative maps in federal court. In 2020, after Kellylost his first election, he returned to private practice, where his clients included both the state and national Republican parties.

Kelly's biggest financial backers included Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and a group called Fair Courts America, which is funded by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein. Together, they spent more than $10 million on ads criticizing sentences handed down by Protasiewicz as a judge in Milwaukee County.

While money from Kelly and conservative groups came in heavy during the closing weeks of the campaign, Protasiewicz was able to counter with a fundraising haul that was previously unheard of in a judicial race, raising more than $14 million this year. The bulk of that money came in transfers from the state Democratic Party.

The race shattered the previous national record for spending in a state Supreme Court race. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the old record of $15.2 million was set in a 2004 race for the Illinois Supreme Court. According to the center'stracking, nearly $29 million had been spent on political ads in Wisconsin's race. Another running tally by the Wisconsin political news site WisPolitics found total spending on the race had hit $45 million.

Protasiewicz will take office on Aug. 1 for a term that runs until 2033. Barring the unexpected, the next chance conservatives have to flip the court back will be in 2025.

Copyright 2023 Wisconsin Public Radio

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.

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