The top two vote-getters in the Feb. 21 nonpartisan primary for Wisconsin Supreme Court will advance to a general election on April 4. Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow, former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell, and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz are running.
Justice Patience Roggensack, whose term will expire in July, is not running for re-election.
While supreme court elections are officially nonpartisan, the court is considered to have a 4-3 conservative majority. With Roggensack—a member of the court’s conservative majority—retiring, this election will determine the ideological control of the court. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Corrinne Hess, “[Mitchell and Protasiewicz] are running as liberal candidates. Kelly and Dorow are running as conservative candidates.”
Dorow joined the Waukesha County Circuit Court in 2012 after being appointed by Gov. Scott Walker (R). In her campaign announcement, Dorow said, “We must replace Justice Roggensack with a judicial conservative who will fairly and faithfully apply the law as written to the facts of the cases that come before the court.” Roggensack endorsed Dorow in January 2023.
Kelly previously served on the supreme court from 2016—when Walker appointed him to fill a vacancy—to 2020. Kelly said, “If an activist were to win next April, Wisconsin’s public policy would be imposed by four lawyers sitting in Madison instead of being adopted through our constitutional processes. I won’t let that happen on my watch.” Justice Rebecca Bradley endorsed Kelly in November 2022.
Mitchell, who was first elected to the Dane County Circuit Court in 2016, said, “[P]reserving the integrity and independence of the court has never been more important. … Wisconsinites deserve a justice who has the highest respect for the Wisconsin Constitution and is committed to ensuring that the Wisconsin Supreme Court is an instrument of balance and justice rather than partisan divide.” Former Justice Louis Butler endorsed Mitchell in June 2022.
Protasiewicz was first elected to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 2014. Protasiewicz said, “We must restore confidence that judges aren’t just trying to reach their favored outcomes, but actually applying the law and the constitution. I’m running to restore integrity to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and get politics out of the courtroom.” Justice Rebecca Dallet endorsed Protasiewicz in May 2022.
Wisconsin reporters and political commentators have identified abortion policy, election administration, and legislative redistricting as some of the legal issues the court could address following the election. According to the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Alexander Shur, “With the court’s ideological balance up for grabs, the candidate elected in April will play a decisive role in upcoming cases that may include the legality of Wisconsin’s near-complete 1849 abortion ban, fights over legislative redistricting and the power of the executive branch in administering laws.” Wisconsin has a divided government where neither party holds a trifecta. The governor is Democrat Tony Evers, while the Republican Party controls both chambers of the state legislature.
University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse political analyst Anthony Chergosky said in November 2022 that the entrance of a fourth candidate “injected [the race] with a lot of unpredictability,” noting the possibility of two conservative or two liberal candidates advancing to the general election. WKOW TV Capitol Bureau Chief A.J. Bayatpour and Cap Times Capitol Bureau Chief Jessie Opoien each said in January 2023 that they did not think it was likely that two conservative or two liberal candidates would advance.
Heading into the 2020 election, the court had a 5-2 conservative majority. In that election, liberal Jill Karofsky defeated Kelly 55.2% to 44.7%.
Wisconsin is one of two states holding elections for state supreme court in 2023.