Liberals gain control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court for the first time in 15 years

Janet Protasiewicz is a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge. She has been elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. According to NBC News, this will give liberals their first majority on the state’s highest court for 15 years.

Protasiewicz beat Dan Kelly, a conservative state Supreme Court justice on Tuesday. This was the most expensive state Supreme Court race ever and the most closely-watched election of 2023.

Protasiewicz’s win will allow the court’s new liberal majority determine the future of many pivotal issues that the bench is likely in the coming years. These include abortion rights and the state’s state-gerrymandered legislative mappings, election administration, and possibly the outcome of 2024’s presidential race in the battleground.

Protasiewicz received 55% of the expected votes, Kelly got 45%.

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The court has a 4-3 majority of conservative-leaning justices. Protasiewicz will take over the place vacated by retired conservative Justice Patience Roggensack. This gives liberals the majority in the court for the first time since 2008. Protasiewicz was reelected for a 10-year term.

Protasiewicz stated throughout her campaign that her positions on many issues, including abortion rights rights, aligned with the Democratic Party’s. The Democratic abortion rights group Emily’s List endorsed her, along with Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder, and other prominent Democrats.

The state Democrats and the national Democrats described the race this year as the most important in the country. They focused their messaging on abortion rights and fair election — continuing a strategy that the national party used last season to stop a red wave in Congress and keep the Senate. Protasiewicz’s win suggests that the party strategy is paying off — which will prove to be a data point on which national Democrats can rely when they head into next year’s presidential election.

After NBC News had called the race, state Democrats and abortion rights organizations praised her win. Ben Wikler (chair of the state Democratic Party) tweeted that her win was “a release valve” for the twelve years of Democratic rage in Wisconsin over Republicans rigging the state and smashing the democracy. Laphonza Butler, president of Emily’s List which works to elect Democratic women who support the right to abortion, stated in a statement that Protasiewicz’s victory “will change Wisconsinites’ lives for years to come and allow the state to be a beacon for reproductive health care access.”

A significant factor was also that Kelly’s campaign, and the groups supporting it, were vastly outspent by the Protasiewicz Campaign, as well as those supporting it.

Protasiewicz, in her victory speech from Milwaukee, praised voters who had “chosen not to support partisan extremism within this state” and stated that “our democracy will always triumph.”

She said, “Too many people have tried to overturnthe will of the people,” referring to the attacks Kelly made during her campaign regarding his connections to a plot against the 2020 state election results.

She stated that “Today’s results prove that Wisconsinites believe democracy and the democratic processes.”

Kelly, who was defeated by Jill Karofsky to take his place on the state Supreme Court, was relentlessly attacked by Protasiewicz, and other allied groups, for having advised Republicans in legal efforts to reverse the 2020 election through the use “fake voters.”

Kelly gave a ferocious speech to Green Lake supporters, acknowledging his loss, but criticizing Protasiewicz’s campaign for the courts that he described as “the most deeply deceitful and dishonorable campaign I have ever seen.”

“The people of Wisconsin chose Janet as their rule. Kelly stated that Kelly respected the decision, as it was theirs.

He said, “I wish that I could concede to a worthy adversary,” but he did not know of any worthy opponent.

He concluded his remarks by wishing Wisconsin luck. “Because I believe it’s going need it.”

Andrew Hitt, the former chairman of the Wisconsin GOP, testified before the House committee that he had had “pretty extensive discussions” with Kelly about the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last year that Kelly was paid $120,000 by the Republican Party at both the state and national levels to help them with “election integrity” issues.

Kelly denied any involvement in the matter and repeatedly rebutted against the allegations.

Abortion rights were however at the heart of the race.

It is widely believed that the state Supreme Court will soon decide the fate for the restrictive 1849 state abortion law.

Protasiewicz’s TV advertisements highlighted her support for abortion rights, and attacked “extremists” on both sides. Kelly, who did not say how he would rule in such cases, was supported by three organizations that oppose abortion rights and provided counsel to another Wisconsin group opposing abortion rights.

It is likely that the state Supreme Court will hear challenges to existing election laws as well as cases related to absentee ballots or other aspects of election administration that could have significant impacts on the outcome of close elections in the perpetual battlefield state, including the 2024 presidential race.

In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court declared all ballot drop boxes located outside of election clerks offices illegal. This was a blow for Democrats who had fought to keep one of the more permissive rules regarding the boxes that were created during the coronavirus pandemic. In a second 4-3 vote, the court had narrowly upheld 2020 state election results. Court watchers foresee similar cases in future.

Another issue that could be brought before the court is the challenge to Act 10, which was enacted by the then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees, was also on the court. It could also hear cases regarding redrawn legislative map (the current map was approved last year by the state Supreme Court, experts claiming it is the most gerrymandered one in the country). The state Supreme Court in Wisconsin is responsible for deciding whether the governor or the Legislature can agree on legislative maps. This is similar to what happens in other states.

Protasiewicz made it clear during a debate, stating that she thinks the map issue “really kind of easy” I don’t believe anyone thinks that both maps are fair.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters also approved a constitutional amendment