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

Three takeaways from the Wisconsin Supreme Court debate

The two candidates -- one conservative and one liberal -- met in the state capital for their first and only debate of the campaign.


MADISON, Wis. -- Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly met face-to-face on Tuesday as both candidates vie to become the newest Wisconsin Supreme Court justice.

The winner of this race will determine the balance of the court, as the candidates are vying to replace Justice Patience Roggensack, a member of the court's 4-3 conservative majority. The race is technically non-partisan, but Kelly is running in the conservative lane and Protasiewicz is running in the liberal lane.

The race has garnered national attention, not only because the balance of the court could shift in a swing state, but also because the court is expected to hear cases on the future of abortion rights and redistricting in the state in the near term.

Here are three takeaways from the debate:

1. Attack ads, rather than judicial philosophy, dominated.

This year's state Supreme Court race has shattered spending records, as outside groups and candidates spend millions on the airwaves to bolster one candidate and attack the other.

Much of the debate included both candidates disputing allegations made against them in TV ads.

Protasiewicz pushed back on the notion that she gave weak sentences to violent offenders. One ad from an outside group tells voters, "Judge Protasiewicz puts our families at risk."

In the debate, she told moderators, “I have sentenced thousands of people and it’s interesting that a handful of cases have been cherry picked and selected and twisted."

Meanwhile, ads funded by Protasiewicz's campaign have accused Kelly being a guaranteed vote against abortion rights, if elected to the court.

"On the Supreme Court, Dan Kelly will uphold the criminal ban on abortion," a woman in one ad says.

“You don’t know what I’m thinking about that abortion ban — you have no idea,” Kelly said on the debate stage.

2. Redistricting and abortion are top issues.

Two issues that have come up often in the campaign elicited strong responses from both candidates on Tuesday — redistricting and abortion rights.

Both topics could be in front of the court in the next few years, meaning the winner of this election is likely to have a hand in ruling on both issues.

Both candidates said they would rule based on the facts of the case, but on the issue of redistricting, Protasiewicz said the Wisconsin legislative and congressional maps have issues.

"I think the map issue is really kind of easy, actually. I don't think anybody thinks both maps are fair," she said.

Kelly, on the other hand, argued that there are very few reasons why the court would have to intervene, because redistricting is a political process reserved for the state legislature.

"The way you draw those lines is almost entirely political, except that there are some legal requirements you have to meet," Kelly said.

"We'll leave the political questions to the state legislature, where they belong," Kelly said.

3. This race is non-partisan in name only.

The race is technically non-partisan, but that wouldn't necessarily be clear to voters just tuning in.

From the debate stage on Tuesday, both candidates represented positions that seemed to line up with one of the two major parties.

Protasiewicz reiterated her support for abortion rights. She also defended her endorsements from Planned Parenthood and EMILY's List, a group focused on electing women who support abortion women, making clear that her position on abortion is a personal belief.

"I've been also very clear about what my views are, what my personal opinion is with regard to a woman's right to choose. My personal opinion is that should be the woman's right to make a reproductive health decision," Protasiewicz said.

And, Kelly defended himself against allegations that he worked for the Republican Party of Wisconsin as recently as last year, saying that the party was one of his legal clients and he represented them no differently than he would anyone else.

"You obviously don't know the difference between having a client being on a payroll," Kelly said.

"I've never been on the payroll of the state party. I've had clients because, as it turns out, I'm a lawyer," he added.