The Wisconsin Supreme Court flips to liberal control for the first time in 15 years

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz's term starts Aug. 1 with a public swearing in ceremony in the state Capitol Rotunda — her seat on the court carries tremendous weight in the state's politics.

Associated Press

August 1, 2023

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Janet Protasiewicz stands and holds her right hand in the air and speaks, while standing next to Greg Sell who is holding a Bible, and facing Ann Walsh Bradley who is holding a large folder with sheets of paper within, in a room with different colors of marble masonry.

Janet Protasiewicz, left, is sworn as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice by Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley on Aug. 1, 2023, in Madison. At center is Protasiewicz' husband Greg Sell. The state's high court flipped to liberal control for the first time in 15 years with the start of Protasiewicz's term. (Credit: AP Photo / Morry Gash)

AP News

By Scott Bauer, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Democrats celebrated the beginning of a new era for the state Supreme Court on Aug. 1 as it flipped from conservative to liberal control for the first time in 15 years.

Janet Protasiewicz, who made abortion rights a focus of her winning election campaign and called Republican-drawn redistricting maps “rigged,” marked the start of her 10-year term with a swearing-in ceremony in the state Capitol Rotunda attended by an overflow crowd of hundreds, including many Democratic officeholders.

Protasiewicz’s win carries tremendous weight in Wisconsin, where the state Supreme Court has been the last word on some of the biggest political and policy battles of the past decade-plus.

The conservative-controlled court came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden’s narrow win in the state in 2020, though Biden still would have had enough electoral votes to claim the presidency. More battles over voting rules and elections are expected leading up to 2024, along with challenges to the state’s abortion ban, Republican-drawn political boundary lines and a host of other hot-button issues.

Protasiewicz promised not to bow to political pressure.

“We all want a Wisconsin where our freedoms are protected,” she said at the ceremony. “We want a Wisconsin with a fair and impartial Supreme Court. We all want to live in communities that are safe. And we all want a Wisconsin where everyone is afforded equal justice under the law.”

Numerous people sit and stand in the round on multiple levels of a rotunda with different colors of marble masonry, facing Janet Protasiewicz as she speaks while standing behind a wood podium and in front of the U.S. and Wisconsin flags

Janet Protasiewicz speaks after being sworn in as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice on Aug. 1, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. (Credit: AP Photo / Morry Gash)

State Democratic legislative leaders, the Democratic secretary of state and attorney general, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, and the three other liberal high court justices who, along with Protasiewicz now form the majority, attended. Justice Brian Hagedorn, a conservative whom Republicans backed but who has angered them by sometimes siding with liberals, was also there.

Protasiewicz, who was previously a Milwaukee County judge, ran with backing and deep financial support from Democrats, abortion rights groups and other liberals in the officially nonpartisan race. She handily defeated her conservative opponent in April, raising expectations among liberals that the new court will soon do away with the state’s abortion ban, order new electoral maps to be drawn and ensure a long line of Democratic success after 15 years of rulings that largely favored Republicans.

Protasiewicz replaces retiring conservative Justice Pat Roggensack, who served 20 years, including six as chief justice.

While it may be a while before the court weighs in on some topics, a new lawsuit challenging the GOP-drawn legislative and congressional district maps is expected to be filed within weeks. And there is already a pending case challenging a pre-Civil War era abortion ban, and a county judge ruled in July that it can proceed while also calling into question whether the law actually bans abortions.

The rules for voting and elections are also expected to come before the court heading into the 2024 presidential election.

A national Democratic law firm filed a lawsuit in July seeking to undo a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling last year banning absentee ballot drop boxes.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, who attended the ceremony, said the court flipping to liberal control “could not have occurred at a more critical time.”

The new liberal majority was making immediate changes: Randy Koschnick, who has been director of state courts for six years, said he was informed July 31 that he would be fired the afternoon of Aug. 1.

Koschnick is a former county judge who ran for the state Supreme Court in 2009 with support from conservatives but lost to then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a liberal. Koschnick said he was told by liberal Justice Jill Karfosky that he was being fired because the court was “moving in a different direction.”

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