The race will determine the partisan makeup of the state's highest court at a time when abortion rights and voting rights are at risk.
When voters head to the polls to choose a judge to fill a vacancy on the Wisconsin Supreme Court this spring, the outcome will have huge implications for the future of the state.
Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the court, which is officially nonpartisan. But if a liberal candidate running to replace retiring Justice Patience Roggensack were to win the general election in April, it would flip the partisan makeup of the court at a crucial time for the Badger State, when the future of abortion access, voting rights, gun control, and other important issues could be on the line.
The stakes aren't lost on Janet Protasiewicz, a veteran circuit court judge in Milwaukee and one of the two liberal candidates running to fill the open seat. Despite the baggage that comes with running for office — the intense public scrutiny, the personal attacks, the character assassinations — Protasiewicz says that it's worth it.
"You realize that what's on the line is just so important," she recently told the American Independent Foundation. "Quite frankly, our democracy is on the line with this seat."
Protasiewicz has decades of legal experience: She served as an assistant district attorney for over 25 years before she found herself yearning to be on the other side of the bench.
"You go into court every day, and you make these arguments for what you think is fair and appropriate, and you kind of get to the point where you are tired of making the arguments and you want to make the decisions," she said.
So she decided to run for the Milwaukee circuit court in 2013. She lost her first election, but ran unopposed the following year.
These experiences, she said, have had a profound impact on how she views the judicial system: "You are really what the public sees when they come into the courtroom. And so you always want to give everybody the best experience they can have in a criminal court. The best you can do is treat everybody with respect, treat everybody fairly. Make sure that people understand that they're going to be treated fairly. We're all human beings, right?"
That philosophy is something she says she took to heart when she decided to step into a contentious race.
With a potential liberal majority on the state Supreme Court, Wisconsin's Democratic governor and attorney general, Tony Evers and Josh Kaul, would have a good chance of successfully suing to overturn the state's gerrymandered congressional maps before the 2024 presidential election. And a liberal majority on the court could also ensure abortion access for Wisconsin residents by overturning a 1849 state law that bans abortion, which went into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court effectively struck down Roe v. Wade last June.
Protasiewicz is no stranger to personal attacks and contentious elections: She encountered both when she first ran for Milwaukee circuit court judge in 2013, in a hotly contested race against Justice Rebecca Bradley. Bradley won the election with 53% of the vote. Protasiewicz ran unopposed for the seat the following year after Bradley was appointed to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court.
The attacks are ramping up again, as Protasiewicz's far-right opponents and critics accuse her of judicial activism and paint her as an activist judge bent on implementing liberal policies.
Dan Kelly, one of the conservatives running in the election, tweeted in January: "Janet Protasiewicz once again promises to put herself above the law. She won't commit to following the constitution because she would rather inflict her personal values on our state. Her own words prove she is a danger to our liberties and the constitutional order." And a formal complaint filed by a Wisconsin man and promoted by the Republican Party of Wisconsin accused Protasiewicz of violating the state's Code of Judicial Conduct by talking openly about her progressive values.
Protasiewicz says she embraces the label of "progressive" that her opponents have used in their attacks on her values.
"I go out and I tell people what my values are in regard to our democracy, i.e., our maps. I tell people what my values are in regard to a woman's right to choose," she told the American Independent Foundation. "I am always extremely careful to advise that nonetheless, I will follow the law and uphold the Constitution."
In one of her first TV ads, Protasiewicz doesn't mince words: "I believe in a woman's freedom to make her own decision on abortion."
It's too soon to tell if her openness is resonating with voters: No polls on the race have been released. But Protasiewicz has raised $756,000, according to recent campaign finance filings — more than all three of her opponents combined.
Wisconsin needs "an impartial court, not an activist court," Protasiewicz told the American Independent Foundation. "I'm independent, and every decision I make will be rooted in the law."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.