Emily's List jumps into Wisconsin Supreme Court election with endorsement of liberal judge


The group is backing liberal Judge Janet Protasiewicz in a technically nonpartisan election with major implications for abortion access in the state.

This story was originally published by The 19th.

Written by Grace Panetta, political reporter at The 19th.

Emily's List is endorsing a candidate in a state judicial race for the first time in its 38-year history, backing liberal Judge Janet Protasiewicz in a critical upcoming race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Emily's List President Laphonza Butler said in a statement released Thursday that the organization, which backs Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights, was "thrilled" to endorse Protasiewicz in a pivotal Supreme Court race that will decide the ideological balance of the court — and likely determine the fate of abortion access in the state.

"The rights and freedoms of millions of Wisconsinites hinge on a Wisconsin Supreme Court committed to reproductive freedom, democracy, and voting rights for all," Butler said in the statement. "Protasiewicz has been a champion for Wisconsinites for over 35 years, and we have full confidence in her dedication to fairly interpreting the law and standing up to extremism. We are proud to support her in this race."

Protasiewicz, a liberal Milwaukee County circuit court judge and former prosecutor, is one of four candidates — two liberals and two conservatives — running in a technically nonpartisan race to replace retiring conservative Justice Patience Roggensack. The top two vote-getters in the top-four primary on February 21 will advance to an April 4 general election.

Emily's List jumping into a state supreme court race for the first time underscores the increasing importance of state courts in the fight for abortion rights. The U.S. Supreme Court leaving issues like abortion and redistricting to the states has raised the stakes for once-obscure state supreme court races and spurred more outside groups on both the left and right to devote time and resources to influencing who gets on the court.

"As those really high-profile fights play out in state courts, it's only going to attract more attention to those courts, and those decisions and the process that decides who sits on them," Douglas Keith, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice who studies state supreme court races, told The 19th in January.

In Wisconsin, where abortion isn't protected under the state constitution and government is divided, the state supreme court has the last word on abortion. Abortion in Wisconsin was halted after the Dobbs decision due to legal uncertainty over the state's 1849 abortion ban, leaving providers in limbo and patients seeking care in neighboring states.

Wisconsin's high court is poised to decide a lawsuit over the 19th-century abortion ban brought by the state's Democratic governor and attorney general; future litigation over the state's lopsided political maps, which Protasiewcz has criticized as "rigged"; and potential disputes over the 2024 presidential election.

Emily's List's endorsement of Protasiewicz, who currently leads the entire field in fundraising, could also be followed by independent expenditures supporting her candidacy from the group's affiliated super PAC, Women Vote.

Women Vote, one of the biggest players supporting Democratic women candidates, spent nearly $30 million in independent expenditures, mostly television and digital ads, in federal races in the 2022 midterms when the issue of abortion propelled Democrats to victory in races across the country.

Protasiewicz has heavily centered protecting abortion rights in her campaign messaging. Two 15-second ads in a $700,000 ad buy she placed in late January emphasize her support for reproductive rights and attack the two conservative candidates as "extremists" on the issue.

Wisconsin has seen some of the most expensive supreme court races in the country and the highest amount of outside spending from interest groups in recent years, with the state's disclosure laws allowing many outside groups to obscure the sources of their funding.

A Better Wisconsin Together, a liberal group, has already spent nearly $830,000 on television and digital ads opposing conservative Jennifer Dorow, campaign finance filings show.  Dorow, a Waukesha County judge, gained national attention for presiding over the trial of Darrell Brooks, the man convicted of killing six people and injuring 60 others when he drove an SUV into the crowd of Waukesha's Christmas parade in 2021.

And Fair Courts America, a PAC funded by shipping magnate and Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein, has so far spent more than $812,000 on television and radio ads supporting conservative Dan Kelly, a former justice aiming to get back on the court after losing reelection in 2020.

Keith said candidates and outside groups aired more television advertisements explicitly focused on the stakes for abortion in 2022 midterm races than in any previous election cycle, a trend he expects to continue in Wisconsin.

"We're watching this race as very likely record-setting on several fronts," he said.