Though Wisconsin’s midterm elections were less than a month ago, the state’s high-stakes race for the ideological balance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is already underway.
Wisconsin’s spring general election for the Supreme Court and other local races are scheduled for April 4, just four months from this Sunday.
The court is currently split between four conservative and three liberal justices. However, with conservative Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack retiring, the winner of the upcoming election will decide whether the conservative or liberal wing controls the Supreme Court.
Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has made important decisions on highly debated topics such as voting maps, abortion laws and more over the past decade, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
With Wisconsin facing continued partisan gridlock between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers after the midterm elections, compromises are unlikely to be made on topics such as abortion.
Though the Wisconsin Supreme Court is a nonpartisan office, justices identify as either conservatives or liberals.
Two major conservative candidates — former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and Waukesha County District Judge Jennifer Dorow — announced their candidacy as of Nov. 30.
Kelly was appointed to the court by Gov. Scott Walker in 2016. He ran for a full term in 2020 but lost to liberal candidate and current Justice Jill Karofsky.
Jennifer Dorow announced she would enter the race for the open seat on Wednesday, according to WISN. Dorow oversaw this fall’s trial for Darnell Brooks, the man who killed six and injured dozens more when he ran his car into a Waukesha Christmas parade last year. Brooks was found guilty on 76 charges, including six counts of first-degree intentional homicide.
Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz are the two confirmed liberal candidates.
Mitchell is a University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School graduate and currently teaches courses about racism in law and juvenile law alongside his judgeship, according to his campaign website.
Protasiewicz is a Marquette Law School graduate with 25 years of experience as an assistant district attorney preceding her election to the bench, according to her campaign website.
This spring’s election results could determine how Wisconsin’s high court rules on a Democratic lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban, which took effect this June after the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade. The near-total abortion ban makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul filed the lawsuit challenging the ban days after it took effect, arguing a 1985 Wisconsin law legalizing abortions before a fetus can survive outside the womb invalidates the 1849 law.
That lawsuit is likely to end up in the state Supreme Court next year, giving justices the final say on Wisconsin’s abortion laws.
“That would essentially leave it up to the courts to determine whether or not Wisconsin is going to be a state that bans abortion or a state that protects bodily autonomy,” Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin legal advocacy director Michelle Velasquez told WUWM last week.
UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden told The Daily Cardinal the court’s decision could also impact student concerns beyond abortion.
“The court might also rule on other issues of interest to students, including environmental regulations, election rules and gerrymandering and criminal justice policy,” Burden said. “It is not an exaggeration to say that the Supreme Court race will help determine the direction of the state for at least the next few years.”
Though spring elections often see lower turnout than fall elections, Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler expects high turnout in the 2023 Supreme Court election due to the election’s consequences, according to the State Journal.
“Turnout in the spring of 2023 will not look like a midterm or a presidential race, but it could very well set a spring election record in the state of Wisconsin,” Wikler told the State Journal on Saturday. “We know that the turnout tends to be the highest when people think the stakes are the highest.”
Candidates will begin circling nomination papers on Thursday, Dec. 1, and signatures for nomination papers are due on Jan. 3.
The candidates will face off in a primary election on Feb. 21, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the April general election. The new justice elected in April will take the bench next August, according to WUWM.