Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates clash over abortion, maps in only 2023 debate

The only debate between 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Dan Kelly and Janet Protasiewicz came hours after early in-person voting began ahead of the April 4 election.

Associated Press

March 21, 2023

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Janet Protasiewicz and Daniel Kelly stand behind podiums with microphones and labels reading State Bar of Wisconsin, with a stage curtain, horizontal banner reading State Bar of Wisconsin and vertical banner reading News 3 Now and Campaign 2023 in the background.

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Republican-backed Dan Kelly and Democratic-supported Janet Protasiewicz participate in a debate on March 21, 2023, in Madison. (Credit: AP Photo / Morry Gash)

By Scott Bauer, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The liberal candidate for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court didn’t back down from her support for abortion rights or her belief that the state’s Republican-drawn legislative maps are unfair during a debate on March 21 in which her GOP-backed opponent accused her of being “bought and paid for” by Democrats.

Janet Protasiewicz called her conservative opponent, Dan Kelly, “a true threat to our democracy” because he consulted with Republicans about their plan to seat fake electors to support Donald Trump after he lost Wisconsin in 2020.

Whoever wins the April 4 election for a seat vacated by the retirement of a conservative justice will determine majority control of the court for at least the next two years, including leading up to the 2024 presidential election. Control of the court, which came within a vote of overturning Trump’s 2020 defeat in the state, could be crucial, with abortion access, legislative redistricting, voting rights and other key issues at stake. The millions already spent have made it the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history.

Kelly repeatedly accused the Democratic-backed Protasiewicz of lying about his role in the fake elector plan, his abortion stance and other issues, telling her, “You’re willing to say anything to get what you want.”

Daniel Kelly stands and speaks into a pair of microphones while gesturing with his right hand, with a stage curtain in the background.

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Republican-backed Dan Kelly participates in a debate on March 21, 2023, in Madison. (Credit: AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Protasiewicz has focused her candidacy on her support for abortion rights, stopping just short of saying how she would rule on a lawsuit challenging the state’s abortion ban first passed in 1849 — a year after statehood. She reiterated March 21 that she hadn’t made up her mind on how she would rule, but she said Kelly had.

“My personal opinion is that should be a woman’s right: to make a reproductive health decision. Period,” she said. “If my opponent is elected, I can tell you with 100% certainty that (the) 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books.”

Kelly defended his support from the state’s three largest anti-abortion groups and said he made no pledge to them to uphold the ban, as Protasiewicz has alleged.

“This seems to be a pattern for you Janet, just tell a lie,” Kelly said. “You don’t know what I’m thinking about that abortion ban. You have no idea. … I had no conversations with those organizations about how I would rule on any issue, including the abortion issue.”

Kelly, who previously did work for Wisconsin Right to Life, has not said how he would rule on the challenge to the abortion ban should it reach the court. But he did write in a blog post years ago that abortion “takes the life of an unborn child.”

On redistricting, Protasiewicz was asked how she could fairly hear the case given that the Democratic Party has given her campaign $2.5 million. She said she would recuse herself from any case brought by the party, but challenges to the Republican-drawn maps are expected to come from others.

“The map issue is really kind of easy, actually,” Protasiewicz said. “I don’t think anybody thinks those maps are fair. Anybody.”

Janet Protasiewicz stands and speaks into a pair of microphones while gesturing with her right hand, with a stage curtain in the background.

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Democratic-supported Janet Protasiewicz participates in a debate on March 21, 2023, in Madison. (Credit: AP Photo / Morry Gash)

Protasiewicz said she agreed with the liberal dissenting justices in a case that challenged the Republican-drawn maps.

“There you have it,” Kelly said in response. “She just told you how she would resolve the case.”

Protasiewicz accused Kelly of being unfair with his campaign ads accusing her of handing down soft sentences in numerous criminal cases she has handled as a Milwaukee County circuit court judge.

“I have spent my entire career protecting this community,” she said.

Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice, has long ties to the Republican Party, having previously worked for Republicans. Kelly was endorsed by Trump in 2020. This year, he has the backing of Scott Presler, a Virginia native who planned several “stop the steal” rallies and was on the U.S. Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021. He was in Wisconsin in March helping to raise money and support for Kelly through personal appearances on conservative talk radio.

Protasiewicz’s endorsements include Hillary Clinton, Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, which works nationwide to elect Democratic abortion rights supporters.

The debate at the Wisconsin Bar Association, co-sponsored by WISC-TV and WisPolitics.com, came on the same day that early, in-person voting began. Early voting runs through April 2.

Three people seen in silhouette stand next to a table and voting machine, with large plate-glass windows in the background showing a landscape of leafless trees.

Madison residents cast their votes at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center on the first day of early voting on March 21, 2023. Wisconsin voters began casting ballots in person in the state’s high-stakes Supreme Court race, hours before the two candidates were slated to meet for their only debate two weeks before Election Day. (Credit: AP Photo / Morry Gash)

Elizabeth Doe, 73, was the first person to cast a ballot in Wisconsin’s liberal capital, Madison, doing so shortly after 9 a.m. at a community center. She said she voted for Protasiewicz because of her concerns over “reproductive rights.”

“You can’t take that right away,” Doe said.

The contest has already broken national spending records for a Supreme Court race, with the two sides having spent at least $22 million to date. WisPolitics.com estimated that more than $30 million had been spent on the race as of mid-March, which would be roughly double the $15.2 million spent on a 2004 Illinois Supreme Court race that had held the mark as the most expensive.

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