The race will determine whether Wisconsin's highest court has a liberal or a conservative majority, and could decide the fate of abortion and election law in the state.
Last summer, when he was considering a run for a seat on Wisconsin's Supreme Court, Judge Everett Mitchell says a political consultant cautioned him against running. The state, the consultant told him, "would not elect a 'Black Lives Matter' judge." Soon after, the progressive announced his candidacy for the state's highest court.
Mitchell, who presides over one of Dane County's juvenile courts and the county's high-risk drug court program, is one of four candidates running for the seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court left open by the retiring conservative Justice Patience D. Roggensack.
Were he to win, Mitchell would be the first Black man elected to be a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and the second to serve on the court following former Justice Louis Butler, who was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2004. Butler, Doyle, and 16 sitting state judges have endorsed Mitchell.
Mitchell, a former public prosecutor with a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, didn't follow a traditional path to the bench.
Mitchell told the American Independent Foundation in an interview that he was functionally illiterate as a freshman at Jarvis Christian University, a historically Black school in Hawkins, Texas. He credited two teachers at the school for teaching him to read at a college level. He then transferred to Morehouse College and graduated, the first in his family to graduate from college. After receiving a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, Mitchell moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and began working with Urban Ministry, a nonprofit that serves families who have members in the criminal justice system.
Mitchell told the American Independent Foundation that he was inspired to move from community activism to law after a prospective employer of a formerly incarcerated client said, "We can't hire your clients, and if you knew the law, you wouldn't ask us to."
He said he didn't want anyone to tell him didn't know the law again.
Mitchell said he doesn't see an opposition between this role representing the court system and the community activist background he came from. He believes it's a judge's duty to be involved with the community.
"The statute clearly tells us to be in the community. It tells us to be part of the community because you get better access to justice when you're part of the community," Mitchell said.
He applies this philosophy to his role in Dane County, using what he calls a "trauma-informed" jurisprudence. In juvenile court, Mitchell said, he strives to be mindful of the realities of poverty and racism that at-risk youth often bring into the courtroom.
"If we are really concerned with the disparities we have in Wisconsin, especially as it relates to the incarceration of our African American community," Mitchell said, "then we have to talk about the child welfare to juvenile delinquency to adult prison pipeline, and then use our resources to address each one of those elements so that we're not sending more traumatized children into the adult system."
Mitchell added: "What are the therapy services children need? If we're talking about sending them to a residential care facility, are we sure that we have provided them the educational resources that they'll need to be successful?"
He said that people view him as a "savant" for his work. But Mitchell says all he's done is ask the children who come before his court what they need, and then work to connect them with resources from community aid groups and the judicial system. Sometimes that means connecting a child with a mentor; other times it means ensuring that youth of color have access to a therapist who shares their background.
In drug court, Mitchell has been credited for developing a compassionate approach to working with the nonviolent drug offenders who come before his court. Instead of relying on commonly used punitive measures, such as jail time for missed mandatory drug tests, Mitchell often opts for community service. Wisconsin's drug courts have grown over the past 20 years, and studies have found that they reduce the likelihood that participants will reoffend. But the degree of attention he pays to program participants is distinct: In one instance, he wrote a letter supporting a court attendee's apartment application.
"Justice is not just what you say, it's what you do. Ultimately, if we want our state to move forward and our systems adjusted to reflect fairness and equality and balance, then you need to elect people who have committed themselves to doing things for people," Mitchell said. "Wisconsin needs a reflection of our communities throughout our state, and not the current makeup."
At the beginning of the year, Mitchell's candidacy was forced to respond to a report published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that his former wife had accused him in 2010, during a custody battle over their daughter, of having sexually assaulted her. Mitchell told the American Independent Foundation that the allegation was not true; his ex-wife told the Journal Sentinel that it was not relevant to his candidacy. In a joint statement issued the morning the Journal Sentinel broke the story, Mitchell and his ex-wife noted that the renewed interest in their divorce stemmed from his candidacy and affirmed their dedication to co-parenting their child.
Because the race hasn't been polled, it's unclear which candidates are leading the field. But campaign finance reports show Mitchell behind the other candidates in fundraising.
The other liberal in the race, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, raised $756,117 in the six-month filing period that ended on Dec. 31, more than the other candidates combined, according to the Wisconsin Examiner. In the same period, Mitchell raised $115,689, while the two conservatives in the race — Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow and former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly — raised $306,919 and $312,359 respectively.
The race could be the most expensive Supreme Court race in state history. Already, a dark money group linked to far-right conservative billionaire Dick Uihlein, Fair Courts America, has pledged to spend "millions of dollars to help educate voters in support of Justice Dan Kelly."
Despite trailing financially, Mitchell is optimistic. "Money doesn't equal votes," he said. "Our goal was to spend time with grassroots organizations building relationships."
Unlike the other candidates in the race, Mitchell says, his campaign is betting that the diversity of his grassroots coalition — "young activists, LGBTQ folks, faith leaders" — will lead him to victory.
"If what we have done is correct, and our strategy is correct," he said, "I think that will translate into people feeling that this is the moment in which Wisconsin can do something that it has never done before, and that is elect a person of color to the Wisconsin Supreme Court."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.