Liberal, conservative advance in Wisconsin Supreme Court race with abortion rights at stake

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly speaks at a leadership training session for local Republican Party officials and volunteers in Waukesha
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly speaks at a leadership training session for local Republican Party officials and volunteers in Waukesha, Wisconsin, U.S., September 7, 2019. Picture taken September 7, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Feb 21 (Reuters) - A liberal and a conservative won Tuesday's nominating contest for a pivotal seat on Wisconsin's Supreme Court, setting up a one-on-one clash in April with major consequences for abortion rights, control of the state government and possibly the 2024 presidential election.

Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal Milwaukee judge who has spoken favorably about abortion rights, secured the top spot in Tuesday's four-way nominating contest, according to results compiled by the Associated Press.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, a staunch conservative who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump when he ran unsuccessfully for re-election in 2020, took second place, the AP projected.

Protasiewicz and Kelly now advance to the April general election, which will determine whether a right-wing or left-wing majority controls the state's seven-member high court.

The winner will likely serve as the swing justice when the court eventually decides whether to uphold the state's 1849 near-total abortion ban that took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last June to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminating a national right to abortion.

A liberal majority may also re-examine the state's Republican-drawn legislative maps, which have helped the party maintain dominance over the legislature despite a closely divided electorate. And the court will likely rule on voting law disputes that could affect the outcome of the 2024 presidential race, when Wisconsin is expected to be a swing state.

"The stakes in this race for Wisconsin and for American democracy at large can't be overstated," Ben Wikler, the chair of the state's Democratic Party, said in an interview.

With a Democratic governor, Tony Evers, and a Republican-majority legislature often at loggerheads, the state Supreme Court's 4-3 conservative majority has issued a string of decisions that typically favored Republicans.

But a conservative justice is leaving the bench this year, putting the political leaning of the court in question.

While the race is technically nonpartisan, a casual observer would be forgiven for missing that detail.

The candidates left little doubt about their ideological tendencies. Both the state Democratic and Republican parties lined up behind their choices, while a constellation of interest groups has issued endorsements and poured millions of dollars into the campaigns.

The contest already ranks among the most expensive state supreme court races in history, according to Douglas Keith, an attorney at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice who tracks spending on judicial elections.

More than $9 million has been spent with six weeks before the general election, according to AdImpact, a firm that tracks advertising, putting the campaign on track to shatter the $15 million overall spending record for a single-seat race, set in 2004 in Illinois.

State judicial elections have received greater attention in recent years, a trend accelerated by the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

In Wisconsin, the ruling triggered the 19th-century law banning the procedure. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit claiming the statute is invalid - a case eventually headed for the state Supreme Court.

"This is Wisconsin's Roe moment," said Gracie Skogman, a spokesperson for Wisconsin Right to Life, which backed the conservative candidates. "It's not only the fate of our current law that is in jeopardy depending on the ideological makeup of the court, but they have the opportunity to set the standard for pro-life and abortion policy for decades to come."

Right to Life is mobilizing voters with direct mail, phone calls, social media appeals and a voter registration drive.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin plans to invest more resources in the campaign than any previous judicial race, spokesperson Tiffany Wynn said. The group has hired staff to canvass door-to-door and is planning an advertising blitz after Tuesday's primary.

A new liberal majority could also revisit other statutes, such as laws requiring voter identification, permitting concealed carry of firearms and weakening public sector unions.

"These are issues right up and down the line that we've been tackling over the last generation that would be on the chopping block," said Mark Jefferson, the Republican state party chair.

Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in Washington; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Jonathan Oatis

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