Judge Janet Protasiewicz declares victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election on April 4, 2023 in Milwaukee. (Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)
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Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz has won a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, giving liberals a majority as the fate of the state’s abortion ban looms.

Protasiewicz, 60, defeated former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly in what was the most expensive state Supreme Court election in U.S. history.

Spending on the high stakes race has topped $42 million, nearly triple the previous national record for a court race, with Protasiewicz having a roughly $6 million advantage, according to a report released on Monday.

The stakes were particularly high with conservative Justice Patience Roggensack retiring, giving liberals a chance at holding a majority of the court’s seven seats after 15 years of conservative control. Protasiewicz will serve a 10-year term starting in August.

The victory speaks to the importance of abortion as an issue for Democrats in a key swing state, with turnout the highest ever for a Wisconsin Supreme Court race that didn’t share the ballot with a presidential primary.

In a jubilant scene at her victory party, the other three liberal justices on the court joined Protasiewicz on the stage and raised their arms in celebration.

“It was really about saving our democracy, getting away from extremism and having a fair and impartial court where everybody gets a fair shot in the courtroom,” Protasiewicz told AP after her win. “That’s what it was all about.”

The new court controlled 4-3 by liberals is expected to decide a pending lawsuit challenging the state’s 1849 law banning abortion. Protasiewicz made the issue a focus of her campaign and won the support of Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups.

Judge Janet Protasiewicz holds hands with Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, Rebecca Dallet, left, and Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley as she declares victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election on April 4, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wis. (Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)

For Kelly, who previously worked for Republicans and had support from the state’s leading anti-abortion groups, it was his second loss in a race for Supreme Court in three years. He was appointed to the court by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2016.

Ahead of the vote, Protasiewicz called Kelly “a true threat to our democracy” because of his advising Republicans on the fake elector scheme in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

Kelly tried to distance himself from his work for Republicans, saying it was “irrelevant” to how he would work as a justice. He tried to make the campaign about Protasiewicz’s record as a judge, arguing that she was soft on crime and accusing her of being “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 the party. Kelly refused to promise to step down from any case brought by his supporters, which include the state chamber of commerce.

Poll worker Andy Lifson hands a blank ballot to voter Hunter Goff at First Congregational Church in Madison, Wis., on April 4, 2023. Voters chose between State Supreme Court candidates Daniel Kelly and Janet Protasiewicz alongside local election and statewide referendum votes. (Joey Prestley / Wisconsin Watch)

Protasiewicz said that while she anticipates many of the issues raised in the campaign will come before the court in the coming years, she pledged to be impartial and not beholden to Democrats and her liberal backers who poured an unprecedented amount of money into the race.

“I’ve told everybody on the entire time that I was running, despite the fact that I was sharing my personal values, every single decision that I will render will be rooted in the law,” she said. “And that is the bottom line. They’re independent and rooted in the law.”

Kelly, in a statement after his loss, said Protasiewicz “made her campaign about cynical appeals to political passions, serial lies, and a blatant disregard for judicial ethics and the integrity of the court.”

“I wish Wisconsin the best of luck,” he said. “I think it will need it.”

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 court is also expected to hear a new challenge to Republican-drawn legislative maps. Protasiewicz ran as a critic of the current maps, calling them “rigged.”

The state Supreme Court upheld Republican-drawn maps in 2022. Those maps, widely regarded as among the most gerrymandered in the country, have helped Republicans increase their hold on the state Legislature to near supermajority levels, even as Democrats have won statewide elections, including Tony Evers as governor in both 2018 and 2022 and Biden in 2020.

“The policy direction of Wisconsin is going to be determined in large part by this Supreme Court race,” University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said. “Everything from abortion to disputes over the 2024 presidential election are going to land in the lap of this court. And the winner will be the deciding justice on these issues.”

Bail amendment passes

Voters also approved a state constitutional amendment that will make it harder to get out of jail on bail before trial.

Judges will now be able to consider past convictions for violent crimes when setting bail for someone accused of a violent crime. They also will be allowed to set conditions meant to protect public safety when releasing someone before trial.

Rose Chastain and Nate Meng vote at Bashford United Methodist Church in Madison, Wis., on April 4, 2023. Along with local elections, voters were deciding whether conservative Daniel Kelly or liberal Janet Protasiewicz will join the Wisconsin Supreme Court. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

The amendment’s passage, which appeared as two separate ballot questions that were approved by wide margins, is the latest victory in a Republican-backed push to enact stricter bail laws across the country. But criminal justice experts warn that it will result in higher cash bail amounts and disproportionately keep poor defendants behind bars.

Bail is meant to ensure people return to court and isn’t intended to be a punishment, because defendants are presumed innocent until convicted. Criminal justice advocates say that if a judge believes someone is a threat to public safety, they should have the power to hold them without bail instead of setting high bail amounts that could still let out wealthy defendants before trial.

Wisconsin law sets such a high bar for holding someone without bail that the option is almost never used.

Support for stricter bail laws in Wisconsin grew after Darrell Brooks drove his SUV through a Christmas parade in Waukesha in 2021, killing six people and injuring more than 60. Brooks was out on $1,000 bail for another charge. His bail for the parade killings was set at $5 million to prevent his release.

A separate bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last month lays out the details of the amendment, including a list of more than 100 offenses that would be considered violent crimes, such as homicide, sexual assault, arson and human trafficking.

But opponents have raised concerns that some of the crimes listed, such as watching a cockfight or leaving a firearm where a child gains access to it, should not make it harder to get out of jail. Research shows that people who stay in jail before trial are more likely to be unemployed or reoffend after their case ends. It’s not uncommon for people to lose their jobs or homes while sitting in jail on a bail they can’t afford.

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Scott Bauer

Scott Bauer / Associated PressCorrespondent at Associated Press

Scott Bauer is the head of the AP bureau in Madison, covering state government and politics.

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Harm Venhuizen / Associated PressReport for America Corps Member

Harm Venhuizen is a state government reporter with The Associated Press in Madison, Wisconsin, primarily covering elections and voting rights. Prior to this, Venhuizen interned at Military Times. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he served as editor-in-chief of Chimes, the student paper. During his time at Chimes, he earned recognition for his investigative coverage of controversial personnel decisions, sexual assault and university employment policies against same-sex marriage. Venhuizen grew up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin, and spent a summer working as a wildfire firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service.