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Liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz and former Conservative Justice Dan Kelly will square off in a critical race for Wisconsin Supreme Court who will decide the balance of the court and the future of abortion rights in the state.
Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Protasaciewz and Kelly moved from Tuesday’s four-candidate primary to the April 4 general election for a 10-year term. The seat is vacated by retired Conservative Justice Patience Roggensack. Wisconsin Supreme Court races are technically nonpartisan, but candidates run as liberals or conservatives and are supported by major political parties.
The result of the race will determine the balance of the court, currently controlled 4-3 by the Tories. The court is poised to take on influential cases on everything from the state’s political maps, to potential election disputes and whether abortion will be legal in the state.
The Supreme Court of the United States toppling Roe v. Wade in June returned decisions on abortion rights to the states, giving the supreme courts of some states, including Wisconsin, the final say on abortion rights.
Wisconsin, where abortion is currently unavailable due to the state abortion ban imposed in 1849, contrast with neighboring states who expanded access to the process following Roe’s overthrow. The legal uncertainty surrounding the ban has left providers and patients alike, and in the coming months, the Wisconsin Supreme Court could take legal action to challenge the ban worn by Democratic State Attorney General Josh Kaul.
The high stakes of abortion access have prompted groups on both sides of the issue to get involved in the race for the Supreme Court.
Emily’s List, which supports abortion rights, backed Protasiewicz, his first-ever endorsement in a state court race. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America endorsed Kelly, with her super PAC Women Speak Out affiliate pledging to spend six figures to support him. The group spent more than $20,000 on robocalls to support Kelly ahead of the first issue of campaign finance deposits.
Wisconsin has had some of the most expensive Supreme Court races in the nation with high levels of outside spending by interest groups, and 2023 is likely to be another banner year. In addition to ad buys by Protasiewicz and conservative Jennifer Dorow, outside groups spent more than $5 million on TV ads ahead of the primary, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Protasiewicz leads the entire estate in fundraising for the campaign by a wide margin and easily cleared the liberal side of the field, raising and spending rival liberal judge Everett Mitchell. The conservative side of the race, however, was much grittier and contentious.
Dorow jumped into the running in December after gaining national profile for his handling of the trial of Darrell Brooks, the man convicted of killing six people and injuring 60 others when he drove an SUV through crowds at the Waukesha Christmas Parade 2021. She raised Kelly in the last fundraising period.
But Kelly has the support of Fair Courts America and the American Principles Project PAC, both linked to Republican billionaire and mega-donor Richard Uihlein. Both groups spent millions in the primary on the announcements supporting his candidacy.
A Better Wisconsin Together, a liberal group and big spender in Wisconsin Supreme Court races, has spent more than $2 million on TV and digital ads against Dorow.