DemDaily: The Weight of Wisconsin

February 13, 2023

State Supreme Courts have taken on an outsized role in protecting our state and federal rights as the challenges to the most basic of those have multiplied in recent years.

Each state, DC and the territories have at least one supreme court, or court of last resort, which serves as its highest judiciary and the final judgment on appeals -- the primary function of the court. Rulings on matters of federal law, however, can be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Democrats hold majorities on 16 courts, Republicans hold majorities on 27, and the remaining nine courts are either split between parties or unclear.

38 states elect its high court justices, as opposed to gubernatorial appointment, and terms vary by state, on average from six to 12 years.

Just two states, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, are holding state supreme court elections in 2023. Pennsylvania's high court boasts a 5-2 Democratic majority with one Democratic seat up this year.

In Wisconsin, however, where conservatives hold a 4-3 majority, the outcome of the 2023 contest will determine the ideological balance of the court -- with sweeping consequences for the future of reproductive rights, redistricting, and other high-profile issues.

The Landscape
Two liberal and two conservative candidates are running in the February 21 open primary to succeed retiring conservative Justice Patience Roggensack. Voters cast their vote for one candidate, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election on April 4, 2023.

Although the election for the 10-year term is nonpartisan, candidates are unofficially aligned with the political parties, which are investing heavily in the crucial contest.

Powerhouse EMILY's List, which supports pro-abortion Democratic women, has endorsed Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, the first time the 38-year-old national organization has supported a statewide judicial race.

They are not alone, as interest groups are pouring millions of dollars into the race, which is widely expected to become the most expensive supreme court election in state, if not US, history.

$5.6 million has been spent on media buys alone, including about $4.3 million by outside groups and more than $1.3 million by the candidates.

Protasiewicz, who entered the race last spring, has outraised her three primary competitors, reporting nearly $925,000 at the close of 2022.

Fellow liberal rival Everett Mitchell, a Dane County Circuit Court judge, raised $140,000 in 2022.

A key focus of the campaign is an archaic 1849 Wisconsin law that bans abortion other than to save the life of the mother. The law was triggered into effect last summer after the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the federally protected right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit to block the law, which is now making its way through the courts.

The outgoing Roggensack has endorsed Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow who earned national recognition when presiding over the trial of the perpetrator of the Waukesha Christmas parade attack that killed six people. Dorow reported raising $307,000 through 2022.

Dorrow has been the target of substantial satellite spending, with the progressive group A Better Wisconsin Together reporting $1.22 million in ads opposing her candidacy.

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, who was appointed to the state’s high court in 2016, is running again after being defeated by liberal Justice Jill Karofsky in his bid for a full term in 2020. Kelly had raised $312,400 by the end of 2022.

Fair Courts America, a PAC funded by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, has spent more than $812,000 on television and radio ads supporting Kelly.

The key battleground state that Biden reclaimed as blue by less than 1% in 2020, has also become a symbol of voting rights challenges facing Americans.

Wisconsin is operating under one of the most gerrymandered maps in the country after rulings from the conservative State and US Supreme Courts allowed Republican legislative maps to prevail following the 2020 redistricting.

The State Supreme Court also banned absentee ballot drop boxes, which were used during the COVID-19 pandemic but are now prohibited, further disenfranchising the disabled, seniors, and working-class voters.

The Purple State: Wisconsin is represented in the US Senate by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D) and Ron Johnson (R). While the Democratic Party controls the offices of Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General. the Republican Party holds a majority in the State Senate and House. There are two Democratic and six Republican members of the US House.

Important Voter Information
Early Voting began February 7. You may still register to vote in person at your local Clerk's Office through February 17 (proof of residency required) and at your polling place on Election Day.
Election Day Polling Times: 7:00am-8:00pm. Remember to bring a photo ID!

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: Ballotpedia, WashingtonPost, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WPR, Election Law Blog, Brennan Center, The Guardian

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