Wisconsin Supreme Court justice race heats up, with ethics complaint, record spending

About $27 million has been spent in the Wisconsin Supreme Court justice race thus far.

Published: March 24, 2023 11:13pm

As the race to determine whether the Wisconsin Supreme Court will retain its conservative majority heats up, it has become the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history, and the state GOP has filed an ethics complaint over alleged campaign finance violations.

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly are vying for a 10-year term as they seek to take the seat of a conservative justice who is retiring at the end of her term in July. The election, which will determine whether the court maintains its 4-3 conservative majority, is to be held on Apr. 4.

If liberals attain the majority on the court, it could repeal Wisconsin's 1849 abortion law, right-to-work legislation passed under former Gov. Scott Walker and school voucher programs and alter redistricting maps.

While the state Supreme Court election is nonpartisan, Protasiewicz is viewed as the liberal candidate, and Kelly as the conservative, with the former receiving millions of dollars from the Wisconsin Democratic Party and Republicans funding ads supporting Kelly.

This is the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history, with WisPolitics.com tallying $27 million in spending for the race overall, including the primary election that took place in February. 

The race has gained the attention of national politicians, with Protasiewicz receiving endorsements from Wisconsin Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Rep. Mark Pocan, and Rep. Gwen Moore.

Even former President Barack Obama tweeted about the race on Tuesday, encouraging voters to cast their ballots early because the election is "going to be close" and directing them to the Wisconsin Democratic Party's website.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission in early March regarding alleged violations of state campaign finance laws committed by Organizing Empowerment PAC and Wisconsin Takes Action, which is a project of the Democratic PAC.

In the complaint, the GOP alleges that Wisconsin Takes Action "has spent over the $2,500 threshold in supporting a candidate but has failed to register with the Ethics Commission."

In support of the allegation, the GOP cites a training by Wisconsin Takes Action where an organizer explained, "Wisconsin Takes Action is focused on putting forth progressive ideas and implementing progressive laws, so, you know, we really are looking forward to her [Protasiewicz] as the candidate for this upcoming election."

The complaint further alleges Wisconsin Takes Action has sent "a myriad of texts to voters in Wisconsin offering to pay them to encourage people within their network to vote" in the April election.

"The group is offering gift cards to community mobilizers if they contact a minimum of 60 friends and family about voting for Protasiewicz," according to a press release by the state GOP.

Organizing Empowerment PAC told WisPolitics.com that it is complying with all filing requirements under state law. The PAC said it doesn't meet the threshold of allocating more than 50% of its total spending in a year to independent expenditures that would require it to register as an independent expenditure committee.

The media outlet reported that while conservatives view the offer of paying people to encourage others to vote as equivalent to paying for votes, Democrats claim it is simply a paid canvassing effort.

Organizing Empowerment PAC has not responded to a request for comment.

When reached for comment on Tuesday, the Wisconsin Ethics Commission told Just the News that since complaints are confidential, it cannot confirm the receipt of a complaint nor whether there is an investigation into one.

On Tuesday, in their only debate, the two Supreme Court candidates accused each other of holding partisan views and attacked each other's record.

Protasiewicz has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and EMILY's List, while Kelly has received endorsements from Wisconsin Right to Life, Wisconsin Family Action, and Pro-Life Wisconsin.

When Protasiewicz was asked during the debate about the groups that endorsed her, she said, "I can tell you that if my opponent is elected — I can tell you with 100% certainty — that the 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books."

"You don't know what I'm thinking about that abortion ban — you have no idea," Kelly responded.

"The endorsements that I received," he continued, "are entirely because of conversations that I had with individuals and organizations, in which they asked me, 'What kind of a justice will you be?' And I explained to them at length about the role of a jurist instead of talking about politics, which is all you do."

Protasiewicz is a former assistant district attorney who has served on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court for nearly 10 years, according to her campaign website.

Kelly was appointed in 2016 by then-Gov. Scott Walker to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court. After his term expired in 2020, he ran for reelection and lost to the liberal candidate who now sits on the court, Justice Jill Karofsky.

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