“The stakes could not be higher”: MAGA Republicans could win control of Wisconsin Supreme Court

Progressives in Wisconsin and across the United States are warning that Tuesday’s upcoming state Supreme Court election will have implications for working families nationwide, as a liberal judge who has been outspoken about her support for abortion rights and labor unions faces a right-wing former justice funded by dark money.

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz is running against former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly. The contest, which will decide whether the high court leans left or right, has become the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history, with the candidates, political parties, and outside groups pouring $30 million into the election.

Wisconsin Watch at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported last week that Protasiewicz has raised nearly $12 million more than her opponent as the judge issues warnings that a victory for Kelly would mean the court would almost certainly uphold an 1849 law that went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, making abortion illegal in almost all cases including pregnancies that result from rape or incest.

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“I can tell you that if my opponent is elected,” Protasiewicz told supporters recently, “that 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books.”

While Kelly has claimed during the campaign that he is nonpartisan, political commentator Brian Tyler Cohen explained in a video produced with pro-worker media outlet More Perfect Union that the former state Supreme Court justice has made his political leanings perfectly clear in previous public statements and rulings.

“For candidates who have a lot to hide, never talking about your politics is actually extremely convenient,” Cohen said of Kelly, who before launching his supposedly nonpartisan campaign ruled that people in Madison, Wisconsin should be permitted to carry concealed weapons on public transit and that a fossil fuel company should not be required to protect the public from water it polluted.

Kelly’s funders include Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, “a pair of billionaires who are laser focused on transforming their home state of Wisconsin,” Cohen said. The Uihleins have previously donated to anti-democracy causes like “the dismantling of unions” through the passage of Act 10, which eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees and contributed to a dramatic decline in union membership in the state.

Kelly’s backers had spent about $2 million more than Protasiewicz’s supporters on ads as of March 27, according to Wisconsin Watch.

“If they succeed,” saidMore Perfect Union on Monday, “MAGA Republicans will control the state’s highest court—a disaster for working people.”

The Wisconsin AFL-CIO and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are working “to reach every union member in the state and as many other voters as possible” ahead of the election, according to IBEW Local 494 political director Ryan Neibauer, by canvassing door-to-door, visiting job sites, and phonebanking.

“We’re letting people know that labor is supporting Judge Janet, and we think that can pull her across the finish line with a win,” Neibauer said in a statement late last month. “There are so many things on the table and so many things we can do with a pro-worker majority.”

Anti-union justices have had a 4-3 majority prior to the election, but with right-wing Justice Patience Roggensack retiring, “a Protasiewicz win levels the playing field and gives working families and their allies a fighting chance,” said IBEW.

As progressive Wisconsin columnist John Nichols wrote in The Capital Times on Sunday, electing Protasiewicz to secure a liberal majority on the high court would give the state its first chance to address a “radically gerrymandered” district map drawn by Republican lawmakers in 2011, which allowed the party to hold both legislative chambers for more than a decade even as Democrats have won 14 of the last 17 statewide elections.

“This pattern will not change unless a majority of justices agree to revisit the issue,” wrote Nichols. “That certainly won’t happen if conservatives retain their current 4-3 majority following the April 4 election… If the seat flips and liberals take charge of the court, however, Wisconsin’s legislative and congressional maps could be challenged on a variety of grounds, and perhaps redrawn.”

“The stakes could not be higher,” Nichols added. “And the contrast between the candidates could not be clearer.”

Cohen noted that Tuesday’s election could also decide whether former President Donald Trump will be able to successfully challenge the 2024 election results, as he attempted to in 2020, if he continues his campaign for president.

“Just look how close he came to doing it in Wisconsin in 2020,” Cohen said. “The state Supreme Court narrowly sided with empirical reality in a 4-3 ruling, and it’s not a huge mystery how Kelly might rule if he were presented with a similar case. That’s bad news for all of us.”

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