ICYMI: Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Election is 2023’s Most Important Race

Jan 26, 2023

ICYMI: Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Election is 2023’s Most Important Race

MADISON, Wis. — Yesterday, the New York Times profiled Wisconsin’s 2023 Supreme Court race, highlighting the stakes of the election that will determine the court’s ideological balance—and very likely decide the future of reproductive freedom in Wisconsin, the fate of the GOP’s hyperpartisan gerrymander, and other critical issues that will impact the lives of hardworking families across our state years to come.

New York Times: 2023’s Biggest, Most Unusual Race Centers on Abortion and Democracy

In 10 weeks, Wisconsin will hold an election that carries bigger policy stakes than any other contest in America in 2023.

The April race, for a seat on the state’s evenly divided Supreme Court, will determine the fate of abortion rights, gerrymandered legislative maps and the Wisconsin governor’s appointment powers — and perhaps even influence the state’s 2024 presidential election.

The court’s importance stems from Wisconsin’s deadlocked state government. Since 2019, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has faced off against a Republican-controlled Legislature with near-supermajority control thanks to one of the country’s most aggressive partisan gerrymanders, itself approved last year by the Wisconsin justices.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has been left to arbitrate a host of thorny issues in the state, and has nearly always sided with Republicans. But now, with a conservative justice retiring, liberals hope to reverse many of those decisions by taking control of the open seat and its 10-year term.


Their declarations signify how the race is transmogrifying into a statewide election like any other in Wisconsin, a perpetual political battleground. Like November’s contests for governor, state attorney general and the Senate, the court election is set to be dominated by a focus on abortion rights (for Democrats) and crime (for Republicans).


In narrowly divided Wisconsin, a one-seat edge is all the majority needs to change the state’s politics.

In recent years, in addition to approving the Republican-drawn maps, the court has ruled that most drop boxes for absentee ballots are illegal; struck down Mr. Evers’s pandemic mitigation efforts; stripped regulatory powers from the state schools superintendent, a Democrat; allowed political appointees of Mr. Evers’s Republican predecessor to remain in office long past the expiration of their terms; and required some public schools to pay for busing for parochial schools.

Many of those cases, which Democrats hope to roll back, were brought to the court by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a think tank and legal organization that has served as the leading edge of the state’s conservative movement. The group’s founder, Rick M. Esenberg, said the court’s role ought to be upholding laws precisely as legislators have written them — not proposing major changes to them.


The conservative candidates, Justice Kelly and Judge Dorow, have been less forthright about how they would rule, but both have left ample clues for voters. Justice Kelly last year participated in an “election integrity” tour sponsored by the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Judge Dorow, who was so well known in the Milwaukee suburbs that people dressed as her last Halloween, said in a 2016 legal questionnaire that the worst U.S. Supreme Court decision was Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 decision that struck down anti-sodomy laws.

Both have ties to former President Donald J. Trump. In 2020, Mr. Trump endorsed Justice Kelly and praised him at a Milwaukee rally. Judge Dorow’s husband, Brian Dorow, was a security official for Trump campaign events in Wisconsin. Neither Justice Kelly nor Judge Dorow agreed to be interviewed.


The enormous stakes in the race so far have not been matched by commensurate public interest. Marquette University Law School, which conducts Wisconsin’s most respected political polls, has no plans to survey voters about the Supreme Court election, said Charles Franklin, the poll’s director.


Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said there was no question that spending on the race would eclipse the most expensive U.S. judicial race on record, a $15 million campaign in 2004 for the Illinois Supreme Court, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Mr. Wikler, who has spent recent weeks stumping for cash from major Democratic donors, said he hoped to make the race a national cause célèbre for liberals along the lines of Jon Ossoff’s 2017 House campaign in Georgia or the referendum on abortion rights in Kansas last year.

He cited the court’s 4-to-3 ruling in December 2020 that rejected the Trump campaign’s effort to invalidate 200,000 votes cast in Milwaukee County and Dane County — an argument that has resonated with top Democrats in Washington worried that a more conservative court could reach an opposite conclusion in the future.

“Wisconsin is extremely important for the presidency,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said in an interview. “The Supreme Court is the firewall to an extreme Legislature that wants to curtail voting rights. And so this election is very important, not just for Wisconsin, but for the country.”


For Wisconsin Democrats, the election is an opportunity to imagine a world in which they can exert some control over policy rather than simply trying to block Republican proposals, after a dozen years of playing defense.