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2023’s Biggest and Most Unusual Racial Centers on Abortion and Democracy

In 10 weeks, Wisconsin will hold an election that has higher political stakes than any other contest in America in 2023.

April’s race for a seat on the equally divided state Supreme Court will determine the fate of abortion rights, gerrymandered legislative maps and gubernatorial appointing powers — and possibly even the 2024 presidential election if the result is contested again.

The importance of the court stems from the gridlock of the Wisconsin state government. Since 2019, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has faced a Republican-controlled legislature with near-majority control thanks to one of the nation’s most aggressive partisan gerrymanders, himself endorsed last year by Wisconsin judges. .

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been left to adjudicate a host of thorny issues in the state and has almost always sided with Republicans. But now, with the retirement of a Tory judge, the Liberals are hoping to overturn many of those decisions by taking control of the open seat and his 10-year term.

“If you change the Supreme Court’s control from relatively conservative to quite liberal, that’s going to be a big, big change and it’s going to last a long time,” said David T. Prosser Jr., a retired conservative former justice. of the court in 2016.

The contest will almost certainly shatter spending records for a judicial election in any state, and could even double the current most expensive race. Wisconsinites are expected to be inundated with a barrage of ads, turning a typically sleepy spring election into the latest marker of the state’s unbroken political season. The seat is nonpartisan in name only, with officials from both parties lining up behind the chosen candidates.

Indeed, the confrontation for the court is striking because of its purely political nature.

While former state judicial nominees and U.S. Supreme Court nominees have largely avoided weighing in on specific issues — instead, they have presented opaque judicial philosophies and relied on voters or senators to read between the lines — some of the Wisconsin candidates are making anything but explicit arguments about how they would rule on matters likely to come before the court.

Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal county judge from a suburb of Milwaukee, is leading the charge on both fundraising and the new approach to the legal campaign, dropping the pretense that she has no strong positions on the most burning questions. She turned heads this month at a candidates’ forum when she said the state’s gerrymandered legislative maps were “rigged.”

In an interview last week, Judge Protasiewicz argued that abortion should be “a woman’s right to choose”; declared Governor Scott Walker’s 2011 law effectively ending collective bargaining rights for most public sector employees to be unconstitutional; and predicted that, if she won, the court would take up a case to strike down Republican-drawn state and legislative maps put in place last year.

“Obviously, if we have a four-to-three majority, there’s a good chance we’ll be back on the cards,” she said.

The other Liberal candidate, Judge Everett Mitchell of Dane County, which includes Madison, the state capital, said in an interview that “the lines on the map aren’t right.”

Both candidates also voiced their wholehearted support for the right to abortion, which was made illegal last summer under a law enacted in 1849 but is being challenged by the state’s Democratic attorney general in a case likely to go to court this year.

Their statements signify how the race is turning 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 expected to be dominated by a focus on abortion rights (for Democrats) and crime (for the Republicans).

“We’re still on the November hangover where the two main issues were crime and abortion,” said Mark Graul, a Republican political operative in the state who volunteers for Jennifer R. Dorow, a conservative judge. of Waukesha County to the Supreme Court. race. Judge Dorow presided over the trial last fall of a man convicted of killing six people while walking through a 2021 Christmas parade.

Justice Dorow and another conservative, Dan Kelly, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who lost the 2020 election to retain his seat, will face the two liberals in an officially nonpartisan primary on February 21 to replace the Justice Patience D. Roggensack, who is retiring. .

The top two will qualify for the general election on April 4, with the winner joining a court that is otherwise split between three conservative justices and three liberal justices.

In tightly divided Wisconsin, a one-seat advantage is all the majority needs to change state policy.

In recent years, in addition to endorsing Republican-drawn maps, the court has ruled that most mail-in ballot boxes are illegal; wrecked Mr. Evers’ pandemic mitigation efforts; stripped the regulatory powers of the Superintendent of Public Schools, a Democrat; allowed political appointees of Mr. Evers’ Republican predecessor to remain in office long after their terms expired; and required some public schools to pay bus fares for parochial schools.

Many of those cases, which Democrats hope to roll back, have been brought to court by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a think tank and legal organization that has served as the spearhead of the state’s conservative movement. The group’s founder, Rick M. Esenberg, said the role of the court should be to uphold the laws precisely as lawmakers have written them, not to propose major changes to them.

“Having control of the justice system shouldn’t mean you can craft new policies,” Esenberg said. “Some judicial candidates have spoken as if that is exactly what is at stake. And for them, it may well be.

The Tory candidates, Justice Kelly and Justice Dorow, were less outspoken about how they would govern, but both left plenty of clues for voters. Last year, Justice Kelly participated in an “election integrity” tour sponsored by the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Justice Dorow, who was so well known in suburban Milwaukee that people dressed up as her last Halloween, said in a 2016 legal quiz 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 rally in Milwaukee. Judge Dorow’s husband, Brian Dorow, was a security official for Trump campaign events in Wisconsin. Neither Judge Kelly nor Judge Dorow agreed to be questioned.

The race has already broken state fundraising records for a court race. Judge Protasiewicz — whose Tuesday campaign posted a cheeky video teaching Wisconsin residents how to say their name: pro-tuh-SAY-witz – raised $924,000 last year, more than any Wisconsin Supreme Court nominee the year before an election. Judge Dorow and Judge Kelly each collected about a third of that amount, while Judge Mitchell collected $115,000.

Much more money will flow in from outside groups and state political parties, which have no limits on what they can receive and spend. Both parties are expected to spend tens of millions of dollars on their favorite candidates in the general election.

Justice Kelly has the support of the billionaire Uihlein family, whose political action committee last year pledged to spend millions of dollars on his behalf. The Uihleins’ contributions so far have amounted to just $40,000 – a pair of peak individual contributions to his campaign. Last year, the Uihlein-backed super PAC spent $28 million on the Wisconsin Senate race; Richard and Liz Uihlein donated an additional $2.8 million to the state’s Republican Party.

Dan Curry, spokesman for Fair Courts America, the Uihleins’ political action committee, declined to answer questions about the family’s spending plans in the Supreme Court race.

The huge stakes in the race so far have not been matched by proportionate public interest. Marquette University School of Law, which conducts Wisconsin’s most respected political polls, does not plan to poll voters on the Supreme Court election, said Charles Franklin, director of the poll.

Ben Wikler, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said there was no doubt the expenses for the race would eclipse the most expensive U.S. legal race on record, a 2004 $15 million campaign for the Supreme Court of Illinois, according to the Brennan Center. for righteousness.

Mr Wikler, who has spent the past few weeks seeking money from major Democratic donors, said he hopes to make the race a national cause celebre for the Liberals, like Jon Ossoff’s campaign in Georgia in 2017 or the referendum on the right to abortion in Kansas last. year.

He cited the court’s 4-to-3 decision in December 2020 that rejected the Trump campaign’s efforts 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 might reach an opposite conclusion in the future.

“Wisconsin is extremely important to the presidency,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said in an interview. “The Supreme Court is the firewall of an extreme legislature that wants to restrict the right to vote. And so this election is very important, not just for Wisconsin, but for the country. »

Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general who heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, plans to campaign in the state after the primary.

For Democrats in Wisconsin, the election is a chance to imagine a world in which they can exercise some control over politics rather than just trying to block Republican proposals, after a dozen years of playing defense .

In an interview last month, Mr Evers called the race a “big deal”. His election attorney, Jeffrey A. Mandell, said if a Liberal candidate wins, the governor would ask the state Supreme Court to take direct action to strike down the state’s legislative maps on Aug. 2, the day after the appointment of the new judge.

Kelda Roys, a Democratic state senator, said the campaign will focus almost entirely on abortion rights — because the next judge will be able to overturn the state’s ban and because that, she argued, the midterm reviews showed it was a winning question.

It will be abortion morning, noon and night,” Ms Roys said, “even more so than November was.”

Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.

nytimes Gt

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