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Liberal Judge Wins WI Supreme Court Race — But GOP Gains Impeachment Powers

The liberal judge won the race by double-digits against an anti-abortion Trump loyalist.

Judge Janet Protasiewicz onstage during the live taping of "Pod Save America," hosted by WisDems at the Barrymore Theater on March 18, 2023, in Madison, Wisconsin.

A liberal judge won the election for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court on Tuesday, defeating her Trump-aligned conservative opponent by 11 points — a margin that’s almost unheard of in a state as politically divided as the Badger State.

The election result means that the liberal bloc of justices on the state’s highest court will be in control for the first time in 15 years, halting what has been a rubber-stamp judiciary for the state legislature, which has been controlled by Republicans since the party introduced gerrymandered political maps in 2011.

As of 8:30 am Central Time, Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, who was backed by progressives, liberals, and Democratic Party-aligned groups in the state, received 55.5 percent of the vote. Her opponent, former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly — who lost a reelection bid in a separate race for a seat on the state’s highest court just three years ago — received 44.5 percent of the vote.

The race is widely believed to be the most important in the country this year. Both candidates (and the special interest groups that supported them) spent tens of millions of dollars, making it the most expensive judicial election in U.S. history.

Protasiewicz’s win means that justices could soon see a lawsuit, brought forward by Gov. Tony Evers (D), challenging the legality of an 1849 statute that bans abortion in almost every circumstance. The state Supreme Court could also rule on the state’s redistricting process, deciding whether or not it is legal for lawmakers to draw political maps behind closed doors, without public input.

Protasiewicz was vocal about her stance on both issues during her campaign, saying that abortion should be a choice for pregnant people to make with their doctors, and that she believes Wisconsin’s political maps are “rigged” to favor Republicans. Kelly has expressed anti-abortion views in the past, and was backed by a number of anti-abortion groups.

Democrats have said that the race could have grave implications for how Wisconsin elections are run in the future. In 2020, the campaign of former President Donald Trump sought to overturn his election loss to President Joe Biden by petitioning the state Supreme Court to consider a case to overturn the outcome. That case was rejected, with just one conservative justice siding with liberals in the decision.

In spite of that ruling, Kelly, a former paid Republican operative, was in conversations with state GOP leaders in December of 2020 on implementing a plan to select fake electors from Wisconsin to send to the Electoral College. If Kelly won, many of his opponents warned during his campaign, he could potentially rule on similar challenges in the 2024 election.

Protasiewicz seemed to acknowledge Kelly’s participation in Republican attempts to usurp the 2020 election in her acceptance speech.

“Today’s results show that Wisconsinites believe in democracy and the democratic process,” she said.

Kelly, meanwhile, took a bitter tone in accepting defeat.

“I wish that in a circumstance like this, I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent. But I do not have a worthy opponent to which I can concede,” he said to a crowd of his supporters Tuesday night.

While progressives celebrated Protasiewicz’s win, other outcomes from the spring election were less encouraging for progressives. A question on requiring “able-bodied” adults to seek work in order to receive unemployment and other social safety net benefits passed, as did two referendum questions expanding state judges’ power to set excessive cash bail at their own discretion.

Critics lambasted the referendum questions as being misleading.

“These referendum questions are deceptive in that they make it appear to the public that we are improving public safety and equipping judges to protect the public when in fact those tools are already available and better tools are out there,” University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School professor Keith Findley told a local NBC News affiliate television station. “These questions are framed in such a way as to make them appear to be really quite common sense and to make them appear to be necessary revisions when in fact they may not be either.”

A special election in eastern Wisconsin to fill a vacancy in the state Senate saw a Republican candidate, Dan Knodl, defeat Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin by an extremely narrow margin. Knodl received 50.9 percent of the vote while Habush Sinykin garnered 49.1 percent, a difference of about 1,300 votes overall.

Knodl’s win gives Republicans a supermajority in the state Senate — and while they still lack a supermajority in the state Assembly (preventing, for now, the possibility of Republican lawmakers having a veto-proof majority), the win does give the GOP additional political power, including the ability to impeach government officials.

Knodl has indicated that he and his GOP colleagues are already considering impeaching at least one elected official — the newly chosen state Supreme Court justice herself.

The state constitution is vague in terms of impeachment; lawmakers can remove officials for “crimes and misdemeanors” but also for “corrupt conduct in office.” Knodl has said that he interprets that to mean that he and Republicans can impeach anyone who they believe has “failed” in their position.

In the same interview, Knodl described Protasiewicz as fitting that condition. “She has failed,” he claimed.

Republicans’ ability to garner a two-thirds majority in the state Senate is perhaps indicative of just how gerrymandered legislative districts are in Wisconsin. Despite the fact that Republicans lost statewide elections in 2022, 2020 and 2018, the state legislature has remained firmly in the party’s control. Republicans have not held fewer than 60 seats in the 99-seat state Assembly in that time frame (except for one occasion when there were four vacancies in that body), or fewer than 18 seats in the 33-seat state Senate.

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