Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly advanced from the nonpartisan primary for Wisconsin Supreme Court on Feb. 21, 2023, defeating Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow and Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell. With 99% of votes counted, Protasiewicz had received 46.4% of the vote, and Kelly had received 24.2%. Dorow and Mitchell received 21.9% and 7.5%, respectively.
The April 4 general election will determine who will succeed Justice Patience Roggensack, whose term will expire in July 2023, and who did not run for re-election.
While supreme court elections are officially nonpartisan, Protasiewicz and Mitchell ran as liberal candidates in the primary, while Kelly and Dorow ran as conservatives. The current court is considered to have a 4-3 conservative majority. With Roggensack—a member of the court’s conservative majority—retiring, the general election will determine the ideological control of the court.
Protasiewicz was first elected to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 2014. Protasiewicz said when she announced her campaign, “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, and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley endorsed Protasiewicz in February 2023. Justice Jill Karofsky endorsed Protasiewicz on the evening of the primary.
Kelly previously served on the supreme court from 2016—when Gov. Scott Walker (R) 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.
Dorow joined the Waukesha County Circuit Court in 2012 after being appointed by Walker. 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.
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.
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. The Wisconsin State Journal‘s Alexander Shur wrote in January 2023, “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.
According to AdImpact Politics, candidates and satellite groups spent more than $9 million on campaign ads during the primary.
Heading into the 2020 election, the court had a 5-2 conservative majority. In that election, Karofsky defeated Kelly 55.2% to 44.7%.