The election could have monumental ramifications in the state.
By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT
A normally sleepy election, the 2023 race for Wisconsin Supreme Court could have huge consequences in the battleground state. Experts predict tens of millions of dollars will be spent to influence it.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court currently sits with a tight, 4-3 right-wing majority. But the seat up for reelection belongs to a retiring conservative justice, so state liberals see a rare chance to flip the court.
Two right-wing and two left-wing justices are running in the Feb. 21 primary. The two candidates with the highest vote totals will move on to the general election in April. It’s possible that both right-wing judges or left-wing judges could advance, though in recent elections one from each side has made it to the general.
The primary and general elections for Wisconsin Supreme Court technically are nonpartisan, but the candidates have signaled clear partisan leanings that reflect an increasingly politicized state and country.
And the major issues of abortion and gerrymandering are likely at stake, drawing attention from national news sources — the New York Times called the 2023 race “A Colossal Off-Year Election” — and elevating the election’s historically modest profile. Out-of-state donors are already pouring tens of thousands into the race, with much more to come.
Wisconsin, which has frequently elected Democrats in statewide races while having a near-supermajority, Republican-controlled legislature for years, is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, many experts say.
The court’s conservative majority has made several rulings allowing Republicans to continue their gerrymander into the current decade. A left-wing majority could overturn those decisions and try to install more competitive, nonpartisan political maps in the state.
In addition, an 1849 state law making abortion illegal in all cases and enacted decades before women could vote now has become relevant after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has filed a court challenge to the 174-year-old law, a case likely to reach the state Supreme Court.
If cases applying to those issues make their way to the state’s high court, one of these candidates likely will be the decisive vote:
Jennifer Dorow (right-wing candidate)
A judge on the Waukesha County Circuit Court, Dorow on her campaign website calls herself a “judicial conservative who will not legislate from the bench.”
“I am not constrained by political ideologies and academic thinking,” she states on the website.
She also touts her 26-year legal career — during which she worked as a prosecutor and defense attorney in private practice — and her 11 years as a judge.
She earned her law degree from Regent University School of Law in Virginia, which prominent conservative Christian Rev. Pat Robertson established.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack, whose seat Dorow is trying to win, has endorsed her. And Dorow has support from the most law enforcement officials of any candidate in the race. Many current and former county sheriffs, the Milwaukee Police Association, and the Waukesha County Police Chiefs Association also have endorsed her.
Dorow rose to statewide prominence while presiding over the 2022 trial of Darrell Brooks, whom she sentenced to life in prison for driving a car into a Waukesha Christmas parade in 2021, killing six. Dorow won positive reviews from many experts for calmly and firmly overseeing the trial in which Brooks, representing himself, repeatedly and wildly interrupted proceedings.
Her name emerged again in news reports in January about an 18-year-old UW-Milwaukee freshman who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2021. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that two of the man’s friends said the judge’s son Michael Dorow frequently sold prescription pills to the man in the weeks before his death. The deceased man’s family publicly has expressed frustration at what they consider to be the investigation’s slow pace. In a statement, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Police told The Badger Project that the 15-month-old case is pending.
Replying to news reports linking Michael Dorow to the overdose death, Judge Dorow posted a statement to social media: “I understand that by putting my name on the ballot I invited scrutiny about myself and my actions. My children aren’t running for office and they, and every candidate’s kids, should be off limits. We need to restore a sense of decency in our elections.”
At a candidate forum last month, Dorow said she would “unequivocally” support the other conservative candidate, Daniel Kelly, in the general election if he advances instead of her.
She has raised more than $360,000, according to filings with the state. She has received $20,000 donations, the maximum allowed by law, from Remi Harris of Mequon and Juan Perez of Milwaukee. Dorow has received $15,000 from Richard Kessler of Okauchee, Wisconsin.
And she has received $10,000 donations from Donald Zietlow, owner and former CEO of Kwik Trip; Ronald, Steven and Glenda Buholzer of Monroe, Martin Gallun of Oconomowoc, Jan Fedler of Dodgeville, Robert Fettig of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and Michael Shannon of Denver, Colorado.
Daniel Kelly (right-wing candidate)
Kelly is a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who then-Gov. Scott Walker appointed in 2016. Kelly lost his reelection bid to current Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky in 2020.
He calls himself a “constitutional conservative.”
Like Dorow, Kelly also earned his law degree from Regent University School of Law.
He touts himself on his campaign website as an “experienced and trustworthy judicial conservative who will apply the law as it is written, rather than legislate from the bench. His opponents are judicial activists who seek to impose their own political agenda on our state.”
After leaving the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Kelly became a senior fellow at the right-wing nonprofit organization the Institute for Reforming Government, which states that it aims to “remove the onerous barriers and red tape separating the individual from an efficient and functioning government.”
Current Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley, Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge Shelley Grogan and 19 active and retired sheriffs from several counties, including Waukesha and Washington, have endorsed Kelly. Two anti-abortion organizations, Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin, also have endorsed him.
Kelly repeatedly has said he will not endorse Dorow if she advances to the general election. The candidate maintains that he is wary that his endorsement of Dorow would yield a result similar to Kelly’s endorsement of Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn, who, Kelly states, has become insufficiently conservative since being elected to the high state court in 2019.
Hagedorn occasionally has sided with the leftwing block of the court, stating that he follows the law, rather than politics, when making judicial rulings.
Kelly has reported raising more than $300,000, according to filings with the state. He has received $20,000 donations, the maximum allowed by state law, from both Dick and Liz Uihlein, the billionaire right-wing donors and founders of the shipping supply company ULINE, and from Stephen Kieffer of Princeton, Wisconsin
Everett Mitchell (left-wing candidate)
A judge on the Dane County Circuit Court overseeing the juvenile division, Mitchell has worked with colleagues to incorporate trauma-informed practices in the courtroom. Those practices include removing handcuffs on youth during hearings, according to his campaign website.
The judge’s website also states that he has worked with the Madison Metropolitan School District to create an Office of Youth Engagement that connects youth in the criminal justice system to educational programming.
He earned his law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he also is an adjunct professor and has taught courses “Race, Racism and the Law” and “Foundational Principles of the Juvenile Justice System.”
Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett, Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes, and many more judges and elected officials have endorsed Mitchell.
In 2010, Mitchell’s wife made accusations of sexual assault against him in a custody battle over their 5-year-old daughter.
Mitchell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the accusations were false and noted he was not charged criminally. The Dane County family court judge overseeing the custody dispute sided with him, awarding him primary custody of the child, according to court records. The child’s mother was granted only “limited supervised visitation.”
Everett and his ex-wife both told the newspaper they have moved on from the bitter dispute.
Mitchell has reported raising more than $70,000, according to recent filings with the state. His largest single donors include the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, which gave $7,500, and Gloria Page of Los Angeles, California, who has given $5,000.
Janet Protasiewicz (left-wing candidate)
A family division judge on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Protasiewicz calls herself “a community leader, a veteran prosecutor, and a lifelong advocate for victims of crime,” on her campaign website.
She earned her law degree from Marquette University, where she later taught as an adjunct professor from 2013-2016, according to Kevin Conway, a spokesman for the university.
Protasiewicz served for more than 25 years as an assistant district attorney prosecuting criminal cases.
She has endorsements from two current Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices, Rebecca Dallet and Ann Walsh Bradley; Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Neubauer, and several Democratic state and city elected officials.
Candidates running for Wisconsin Supreme Court have generally refrained from taking specific policy positions, though those lines have blurred as the court has become more political. In running for the seat, Protasiewicz has stepped right over them. She called the political maps in Wisconsin “rigged” and said in a video advertisement, “I believe in a woman’s freedom to make her own decision on abortion.” She often hedges those remarks by noting that she cannot say how she would rule on a particular case.
Protasiewicz is aggressively fundraising and reported receiving more than $900,000 in 2022. Both right-wing candidates didn’t even announce their campaigns until the end of 2022.
Protasiewicz’s campaign has received the maximum $20,000 allowed by state law from Robert and Justine Haselow of Edina, Minnesota; Alida Messinger of Afton, Minnesota; Lee and Luis Lainer of Los Angeles and Susan Lubar of Madison, Wisconsin.
Protasiewicz has received $10,000 donations from Joanne Witty of Bedford Hills, New York; Tracy Solomon of San Rafael, California; Mary Ann Howkins of New York City and Marilynn Duker of Pikesville, Maryland.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.
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