Abortion access at stake in Wisconsin Supreme Court race

The fate of abortion access in battleground Wisconsin likely rests with Tuesday’s outcome of the heated race for state Supreme Court that became the most expensive contest of its kind in U.S. history

Scott Bauer
Tuesday 04 April 2023 06:01 BST
Wisconsin Supreme Court race heating up headed into final days

The fate of abortion access in battleground Wisconsin likely rests with Tuesday's outcome of the heated race for state Supreme Court, with the future of Republican-drawn legislative maps, voting rights and years of other Republican policies also hanging in the balance.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been under conservative control for 15 years, serving as the final word on a wide array of Republican policies enacted by the GOP-controlled Legislature. The court came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden’s narrow win in 2020.

Democratic-backed candidate Janet Protasiewicz faces Republican-backed Dan Kelly in the race that is the most expensive court race in U.S. history, nearly tripling the previous $15 million record set in Illinois in 2004.

Democrats hope to win the race to wrest conservative control for at least the next two years, including the run-up and aftermath of the 2024 presidential election. Four of the past six presidential elections in Wisconsin have been decided by less than a percentage point and Trump turned to the courts in 2020 in his unsuccessful push to overturn roughly 21,000 votes.

Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County judge, largely focused the race around abortion, saying she supports abortion rights, but stopping short of saying how she would rule on a pending lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's 174-year-old ban that was enacted a year after statehood. She called Kelly an “extreme partisan” and claimed that if he wins, Kelly would uphold the state ban. Kelly did not say how he would rule.

Kelly has expressed opposition to abortion in the past, including in a 2012 blog post in which he said the Democratic Party and the National Organization for Women were committed to normalizing the taking of human life. Kelly also has done legal work for Wisconsin Right to Life.

Kelly is a former justice who previously did work for Republicans and advised them on the plan to have fake GOP electors cast their ballots for Trump following the 2020 election even though he had lost. He is endorsed by the state's top three anti-abortion groups, while Protasiewicz is backed by Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights advocates.

In a sign of how personal the race has become, Protasiewicz has been endorsed by a fellow Milwaukee County judge who is also the daughter of the retiring conservative Justice Pat Roggensack. Judge Ellen Bostrom wrote in an opinion piece a week before the election that Kelly was “unfit” to serve because of his involvement in the fake elector scheme.

Protasiewicz called Kelly “a true threat to our democracy” because of that work.

Kelly was endorsed by Trump in 2020 during an unsuccessful run for the court after he served four years on the court following an appointment. Trump did not endorse this year. Protasiewicz’s endorsements include Hillary Clinton.

Kelly tried to distance himself from his work for Republicans, saying it was “irrelevant” to how he would work as a justice. Kelly tried to make the campaign about Protasiewicz's record as a judge, arguing that she was soft on crime. He also said that she was “bought and paid for” by Democrats.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party gave Protasiewicz’s campaign more than $8 million, leading her to promise to recuse herself from any case brought by Democrats. Kelly refused to promise to step down from any case brought by his supporters, which include the state chamber of commerce.

In addition to abortion, Protasiewicz was outspoken on Wisconsin's gerrymandered legislative maps, calling them “rigged.” Kelly accused her of prejudging that case, abortion and others that could come before the court.

The winner will serve a 10-year term starting in August.

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