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Liberal Judge Janet Protasiewicz and conservative former Justice Dan Kelly will face off in a critical race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court that will decide the balance of the court and the future of abortion rights in the state.
Protasaciewz, a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, and Kelly advanced out of Tuesday’s four-candidate primary to an April 4 general election for a 10-year term. The seat is being vacated by retiring conservative Justice Patience Roggensack. Wisconsin Supreme Court races are technically nonpartisan, but candidates run as liberal or conservative and are supported by the major political parties.
The outcome of the race will determine the balance of the court, currently controlled 4-3 by conservatives. The court is set to take up influential cases on everything from the state’s political maps, possible election disputes and whether abortion will be legal in the state.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in June sent decisions on the rights to an abortion back to the states, giving state supreme courts in some states, including Wisconsin, the last word on abortion rights.
Wisconsin, where abortion currently isn’t accessible due to the state’s 1849 abortion ban, stands in contrast to neighboring states that have expanded access to the procedure in the wake of Roe’s overturn. Legal uncertainty over the ban has left providers and patients in limbo, and in the coming months, the Wisconsin Supreme Court could take up a lawsuit challenging the ban brought by the state’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.
The high stakes for abortion access have pushed groups on both sides of the issue to get involved in the supreme court race.
Emily’s List, which supports abortion rights, backed Protasiewicz, its first-ever endorsement in a state judicial race. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America endorsed Kelly, with its affiliated super PAC Women Speak Out committing to spend six figures supporting him. The group spent over $20,000 on robocalls supporting Kelly in the lead-up to the primary, campaign finance filings show.
Wisconsin has seen some of the most expensive supreme court races in the country with high levels of outside spending by interest groups, and 2023 is likely to be another record-breaking year. In addition to ad buys by Protasiewicz and conservative Jennifer Dorow, outside groups spent over $5 million on television ads alone before the primary, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Protasiewicz leads the entire field in campaign fundraising by a wide margin and easily cleared the liberal side of the field, out raising and outspending rival liberal Judge Everett Mitchell. The conservative side of the race, however, was far more fractious and contentious.
Dorow jumped into the race in December after gaining a national profile for her handling of the trial of Darrell Brooks, the man convicted of killing six people and injuring 60 more when he drove an SUV through the crowd of Waukesha’s 2021 Christmas parade. She out raised Kelly in the most recent fundraising period.
But Kelly has the support of Fair Courts America and the American Principles Project PAC, both of which are linked to billionaire and Republican mega donor Richard Uihlein. Both groups spent millions in the primary on ads supporting his candidacy.
A Better Wisconsin Together, a liberal group and big spender in Wisconsin Supreme Court races, spent over $2 million on television and digital ads opposing Dorow.