Wisconsin Watch is a nonprofit and nonpartisan newsroom. Subscribe to our our newsletter to get our investigative stories and Friday news roundup. This story is published in partnership with The Associated Press.
A liberal judge running in a pivotal race to determine majority control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court touts her support for abortion rights in the first two television ads of the closely watched race launched Thursday.
The winner of the April 4 election will determine whether the court remains under control of conservative justices or flips to a liberal majority. Everything from redistricting to abortion rights to election laws heading into the 2024 presidential election and after in the swing state could be determined by the court.
The court has the final word on hotly contested issues in the state because of conflicts between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature. The court has overwhelmingly sided with Republicans on major policy issues over the past decade-plus.
The race has become increasingly partisan, with both sides promising to spend millions on the contest in the battleground state. The candidates, particularly Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz, have also been more outspoken than usual for a judicial race in stating their positions on issues that could come before the court.
Protasiewicz launched the promotional spots that are running statewide as part of a $700,000 ad buy leading up to the Feb. 21 primary election. She is the first of four candidates to run ads in the race.
Protasiewicz faces another liberal, Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell, and two conservative candidates: former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow.
In one Protasiewicz ad, she looks directly at the camera and says, “I believe in a woman’s freedom to make her own decision on abortion.” In another, a woman says she is voting for Protasiewicz because she “believes in our freedom to make our own decisions when it comes to abortion.”
Protasiewicz also has been outspoken on redistricting, another issue almost certain to come before the court. She has called Republican-drawn maps approved by the state Supreme Court “rigged.”
Mitchell, the other liberal candidate, has also been outspoken in supporting abortion rights, while calling the state’s gerrymandered legislative maps “extreme” and “partisan.”
Mitchell spokesperson Sean Elliott said in a statement reacting to the Protasiewicz ads that Mitchell can’t comment on cases that may come before the court, but “he knows that reproductive decisions are best made between patients and their doctors. Not patients and politicians or courts.”
Kelly spokesperson Jim Dick accused Protasiewicz of disregarding the law when it conflicts with her personal values.
“Her promise to put her thumb on the scale of justice to achieve her preferred outcomes is offensive to the very idea of a written constitution, and it breaks faith with the people of Wisconsin who insist that their justices apply the law, not their personal preferences,” Dick said in a statement.
Dorow did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Wisconsin’s 1849 law banning nearly all abortions went into effect last year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion. Wisconsin’s Democratic attorney general and governor are suing to overturn the state law, a case that could make its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court after the new justice is sworn in in August.
Former justice Kelly is endorsed by the state’s three largest anti-abortion groups, a fact he touted on Wednesday. Those groups are Wisconsin Family Action, Pro-Life Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Right to Life. Dorow, who became known for presiding over the nationally televised trial of a man who drove his SUV through a Christmas parade, killing six and injuring dozens, is endorsed by Wisconsin Right to Life.
Pro-Life Wisconsin, which endorsed Kelly but not Dorow, says on its website that it only gets behind candidates “who demonstrate a commitment to protect preborn children — in all circumstances and at all stages of development — as full persons under the law.”
Kelly, who served on the Supreme Court between 2016 and 2020, was endorsed by former President Donald Trump in his losing run for a full term three years ago. Dorow’s husband, Brian Dorow, worked in the Trump administration as a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.