Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz discussed abortion rights, redistricting and other key issues Tuesday at the pair’s only debate ahead of an April 4 election that could tip the ideological balance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Hosted by the State Bar of Wisconsin, Tuesday’s event saw Kelly, the conservative candidate, and Protasiewicz, the liberal candidate, offer their visions for an open court seat that could determine the outcome of attempts to overturn Wisconsin’s abortion ban and legislative district maps that currently favor Republicans.
In 2022, the court’s 4-3 conservative majority adopted maps favoring Republicans after months of partisan gridlock between Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Kelly maintained a restricted view of the court’s role in deciding redistricting cases.
“You decide the legal questions, not the political questions,” Kelly said. “The way you draw those lines is almost entirely political, except that there are some legal requirements you need to meet.”
Protasiewicz fired back by calling Kelly’s proposed methodology “unfair.”
“We are a battleground state,” she said. “We have very, very close statewide elections. Yet you look at our state assembly, you look at our state Senate — two thirds of the seats are red. You look at Congress, six are red and two are blue.”
Protasiewicz told the Cap Times earlier this month she would “enjoy taking a fresh look” at Wisconsin’s voting maps if elected to the court.
Abortion rights were another key issue addressed in the debate. Currently, nearly all abortions are banned in Wisconsin under an 1849 law that was reinstated after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June. Wisconsin’s ban makes no exceptions for rape, incest or health of the mother.
Protasiewicz said she would judge any abortion rights cases purely based on the Constitution and the law. However, she also said candidates should be upfront with their personal beliefs, as she has been during her campaign.
“My personal opinion is that it should be a woman’s right to make a reproductive decision,” said Protasiewicz. “Period.”
Kelly did not comment on his personal views of the 1849 abortion ban or how he would rule on such a case. He has been endorsed by several pro-life groups including Pro-Life Wisconsin and Wisconsin Right to Life, according to PBS Wisconsin.
Each candidate questioned the impartiality of their opponent’s potential judgeships, citing support from political parties and partisan donors. The race is already the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history with more than $18 million dollars spent so far, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Kelly accused Protasiewicz of making her potential judgeship appear “bought and paid for” by the Democratic Party, citing donations she received from liberal-aligned groups. Protasiewicz replied by challenging Kelly’s history with the Republican Party.
“My opponent was still on the payroll of the Republican Party of the State [of] Wisconsin in December of 2022,” said Protasiewicz, who went on to accuse Kelly of going on “an election ‘fraud’ tour sponsored by the Republican Party.”
Additionally, Protasiewicz noted Kelly received $120,000 worth of payments from the Republican National Committee over two years of work on election issues. Kelly denied Protasiewicz’s accusations.
Kelly previously served on the Supreme Court bench after being appointed to replace retiring Justice David Prosser Jr. by then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2016. He has operated a private law practice since 2014, according to Ballotpedia.
Protasiewicz has served as a Milwaukee County Circuit Judge since elected in 2014. Before that, she served for 26 years as an assistant district attorney for Milwaukee County.
The winner of the April 4 election will replace retiring conservative Justice Patience D. Roggensack, who has served on the court for 20 years and is not seeking re-election. Her term expires on July 31.