Liberal wins Wisconsin Supreme Court race centred on abortion

Election of Janet Protasiewicz gives liberals a majority on the court ahead of upcoming ruling on state abortion ban.

Two candidates for Wisconsin's Supreme Court face off at a debate last month
Republican-backed candidate Dan Kelly and Democratic-supported Judge Janet Protasiewicz participate in a debate as they campaigned for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on March 21 [File: Morry Gash/AP Photo]

Voters in Wisconsin have elected Judge Janet Protasiewicz to the state Supreme Court, creating a liberal majority on the bench in a key swing state ahead of the 2024 United States presidential election.

Protasiewicz defeated conservative candidate Daniel Kelly in what New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice called the most expensive judicial election in US history. More than $42.3m had been spent as of Monday, according to a review by the website, far outstripping the previous record of $15.2m.

The Associated Press called the race in favour of Protasiewicz.

In a significant victory for abortion rights advocates, the result shifts the court to liberal control, after 15 years with a 4-3 conservative majority. That will likely affect several issues that have polarised Americans in other states, such as voting rights and partisan control over drawing legislative maps.

But it was abortion that dominated the campaign, with the court expected in the coming months to decide whether to uphold the state’s 1849 abortion ban.

That law took effect after the US Supreme Court’s decision last year to eliminate a nationwide right to abortion. The state’s Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul, has challenged the statute’s validity in a lawsuit backed by Democratic Governor Tony Evers.

Protasiewicz put abortion at the centre of her campaign, saying in one advertisement that she supports “a woman’s freedom to make her own decision on abortion”. Kelly, meanwhile, won the endorsement of anti-abortion groups.

The election’s outcome also holds important implications for the political future of the battleground state. Just as it did in 2020, the court could issue crucial voting decisions before and after the 2024 presidential election, when Wisconsin is again poised to be a vital swing state.

In addition, the court may revisit the state’s congressional and legislative maps, which Republicans have drawn to maximise their political advantage.

While the election is technically nonpartisan, neither Protasiewicz nor Kelly made much effort to hide their ideological bent. The state Democratic and Republican parties poured resources into their favoured campaigns, and outside organisations spent millions of dollars supporting their preferred candidate, including anti- and pro-abortion rights groups.

Democrats asserted a Kelly victory could have endangered democracy itself in Wisconsin. They noted that a lawsuit from Republican Donald Trump challenging his presidential election loss to Democrat Joe Biden in 2020 came within one vote of succeeding at the court.

Republicans portrayed Protasiewicz as soft on crime and said she would use the court to advance a liberal agenda, regardless of the law.

Source: Reuters