Costly court races point to a politicized future for judicial elections

Madison, Wis. – This is a judicial election like no other in American history.

Thirty million dollars and counting have poured into the campaign for a swing seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, with television ads flooding the airwaves. The candidates gave up no illusions that they would be neutral on the court. Race will determine not only the future of abortion rights in Wisconsin, but also the political direction of the battleground state.

Yet in other ways, the contest resembles an obscure local election: no bus tours or big rallies. Out-of-state political stars are nowhere to be found. Retail politics is limited to small gatherings in bars that are not advertised in advance to the public.

The result is a campaign — officially nonpartisan but positively partisan — that spins together the old and new ways of judicial politics in America, and that offers a preview of things to come. After controversial recent confirmation battles and pitched decisions on the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s the latest evidence that politically-viewed justices are beginning to act more openly and politically.

Officials from both parties hope the Wisconsin race will lead to a sea change in how state Supreme Court races are contested. 21 other states Supreme Court justices are being elected in unprecedented amounts of money, politicization and voter interest.

“If you elect a candidate who’s focused on politics and agenda and values, it’s going to reward that behavior, and it’s going to happen again and again,” said Shelly Grogan, a state appeals court judge in Wisconsin who supports conservative candidate Daniel Kelly. For the Supreme Court and own the future High Court.

Justice Crogan said Justice Kelly’s liberal rival, Janet Prodasiewicz, has been very outspoken about her political views, now illegal in Wisconsin, by seeking to make the April 4 general election a single-issue referendum on abortion. And he seems to have an advantage in leading private polls and in fundraising and advertising.

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Judge Kelly, who served four years on the court before being ousted in the 2020 election, has a long conservative record and endorsements from Wisconsin’s largest anti-abortion groups. But he’s not a political actor, and he’s centered his campaign on the argument that Wisconsin will only decide cases based on the Constitution, something even some conservatives care less about than Democrats’ pleas to protect abortion rights.

Judge Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County judge, has emphasized his support for liberal causes and his opposition to conservative policies. He says he shares his values ​​without being overt about how he would rule on specific cases.

But some are deceived. During their separate deliberations last week, Judge Prodasievich did not disguise how he would rule on the state’s 1849 abortion ban, which is expected to reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court this year.

Sarah Godlewski, a Democrat appointed this month to be Wisconsin’s secretary of state, said at a stop in Green Bay last week: “When we talk about abortion, when we talk about reproductive freedom, we’re going to be. These messages can win.

Whoever wins will get a 10-year term and will have a four-to-three majority vote on the court that can rule on voting issues before and after the 2024 presidential election. If Judge Protasiewicz wins, Democrats will challenge the state’s gerrymandered legislative maps — and during the campaign, he called them a “fraud.”

Protasiewicz’s strategy is to sweep ads to energize Democrats while undermining Republican support.

“For the typical voter, 90 percent of what they learn about this election will end up coming from campaign ads,” state Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wigler said.

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With a few notable exceptions, nearly all state Democrats have united behind Judge Protasiewicz’s campaign.

In Milwaukee, the black community organizing group BLOC, formed in 2017, refused to support Judge Protasiewicz because he sentenced the son. One of the leaders of the group for up to 20 years In prison 2019 hit and run accident It killed the 6- and 4-year-old sisters.

“It’s not ideal for all marbles,” said Angela Long, executive director of BLOC. “But this is one that I have to stand by. I will not force her to put her estranged family members in a position to support her.”

Wisconsin Republicans face all-too-familiar divisions.

Some conservative voters have been turned off by negative publicity about Justice Kelly, said Matt Batzel, executive director of Wisconsin-based American Majority Action, a conservative grassroots training group.

Focusing on conservative homes in general, Mr. Batzel’s canvassers said they were two-thirds of the people who said abortion was a top issue in the race in the suburban Milwaukee state Senate district, which holds an April 4 special election. In support of abortion rights.

“‘Let’s interpret the Constitution as written and follow the rule of law’ has not historically motivated many people,” Mr. Patchell said.

During the deliberations, Justice Kelly insisted that he had not made up his mind on how he would rule on the challenge to the 1849 law.

“Dan was a purist, and he didn’t want to come across as a politician,” said David Prosser, the court’s conservative former justice.

Republican legislative leaders in Wisconsin, realizing that abortion rights were a powerful motivator for Democrats, tried to carve out some exceptions to the 1849 law, but that effort made little headway.

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In 2016, Donald J. said Vaughn Mobley, Republican Village Chairman of Thiensville, the first Wisconsin elected official to endorse Trump’s campaign. “They haven’t yet. So I don’t think it’s going to be very helpful for us to create a climate.

Justice Kelly’s biggest obstacle may be the funding gap — a result of campaign finance rules written by Wisconsin Republicans in 2015.

Before that, the state provided modest general funding for statewide judicial campaigns and limited the amount of money candidates for any office received from state parties.

But that year, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led Legislature passed legislation allowing private donors to give unlimited amounts to state parties and allowing state parties to transfer unlimited amounts directly to candidates.

This, when he became the party leader in 2019, Mr. Along with the fundraising acumen that Wigler brought, it put Republicans at a significant financial disadvantage in races where their billionaire donors did not reciprocate candidates.

Republicans are now bemoaning the spending disparity that Judge Prodasievich has allowed to air more than $10 million in television ads.

Judge Crogan lamented that Republicans did not have access to the national fundraising network that propped up the Protasiewicz campaign. But the Republicans also Mr. He declined to say whether Walker also erred in raising the cap on contributions to state parties.

“To not be allowed to do money in the state of Wisconsin is to buy a place in any court,” Judge Grogan said. “Outside money should not buy a seat on a Wisconsin court. The voters of Wisconsin must decide.

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