A Supreme Battle For Control of the Court


Liberals and conservatives state-wide are in the final stretch of a heavy campaign for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court after conservative-leaning Justice Patience Roggensack announced last year that she would not run for a third ten-year term.
The ordinarily low-profile and modest Wisconsin spring election will be anything but modest. A liberal judge, Janet Protasaewitcz, and a Conservative, Daniel Kelly, are both vying for the influential seat on the court. The upcoming election on April 4 has drawn millions in out-of-state money for both candidates, as well as national media attention. Like most state-wide Wisconsin elections, the race is highly competitive and a toss-up. The April election has broken many fundraising records and is currently the most expensive judicial election in American history.
Although both candidates are officially non-partisan, their judicial philosophies are polar opposites. The conservative, republican-backed candidate in the race is Daniel Kelly, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice appointed to the high court by former Governor Scott Walker in 2016. Kelly is a self-proclaimed “Judicial Conservative.”
On the contrary, Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal, democratic-backed Milwaukee county circuit judge, is also running for the open seat. Protasiewicz has served on the Milwaukee county circuit court since 2014. Liberals and conservatives alike can agree that the winner of the early April election will have monumental impacts on the Wisconsin judicial system. If elected, Protasiewicz would switch the majority ideology of the court from the current conservative majority to a new liberal majority. The conservative majority would be even more solidified if Kelly is elected back onto the court. Justices with conservative ideologies would hold a 4-3 majority until 2026.
Shelly Grogan, a Wisconsin Court of Appeals judge based out of Waukesha, is not on the ballot this April, but that has not stopped her heavy presence on the campaign trail in recent days. Grogan is an avid supporter of Kelly and has been campaigning across the state for Kelly since he first announced his candidacy for the high court.
“It’s a very easy decision in my mind. If you want a justice who is committed to the rule of law, the Constitution and the proper role of a justice, you should vote for [former] Justice Daniel Kelly,” Grogan says.
While Grogan has been out supporting Kelly, she has also been explaining to voters how unfit Protasiewicz is to serve on the court.
“Judge Protasiewicz has made it clear that she does not intend to adhere to the role of the judicial branch, instead she said that she will put her thumb on the scale of justice in some cases. She has expressed her personal political agenda and personal values with respect to issues that will most likely come before the court, which is prohibited,” Grogan says.
Sam Roecker, a spokesperson for the Protasiewicz campaign, sees the candidates and their qualities differently. As Roecker explains, Protasiewicz is not just what is best for the state but is the candidate who represents the will of the voters best.
“People are ready for a Wisconsin supreme court that puts the partisanship and divisive politics aside and gets back to making decisions based on the law and the constitution. In recent years we’ve seen more extreme members of the court make decisions based on a political agenda and their own extreme political beliefs, while we should be following the law,” Roecker says.
The Protasiewicz campaign and Roecker believe that if elected, Protasiewicz would have immense influence in making the state a more fair place, with a court that better represents the ideas of Wisconsin. Like Grogran, Roecker is critical of the opposing candidates’ qualifications, ideas, and judicial philosophy.
“Dan Kelly was on the court for a brief time when he was appointed, but before that he’s spent his career as a partisan operative, and that’s another thing he’d bring back to the bench if elected,” Roecker says.
One thing that both candidates can agree on is the importance of this election.
“Everyone should vote. It’s a right we have here in the United States. It’s our voice […] we the people, we created a government to protect our God given rights. In order to do that we need to go and vote. We need to elect a justice in the judicial branch that we know will represent us and stay true to the constitutional role,” Grogan says.
To learn more about voting and election day, visit myvote.wi.gov.