Battle Expected For Wisconsin Supreme Court Seat Next Spring

Jun 12, 2019

It isn’t being held until next spring, but Wisconsin is gearing up for another hard-fought state Supreme Court race.

Conservative Justice Daniel Kelly recently announced that he’ll run for a full 10-year term in April of 2020. He was appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2016 to fill the remainder of Justice David Prosser’s term when he retired. A couple of candidates backed by Democrats have already thrown their hats into the ring too – Marquette Law Professor Ed Fallone and Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky.

Although the race won’t determine control of the court, neither side is taking the race for granted.

One group educating people about the Supreme Court race is the League of Women Voters.

Recently, dozens of students spilled onto the football field of Milwaukee Washington High School for the annual Senior Send-off. The League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County were holding a voter registration drive. Every time a student signed up, a cow bell sounded congratulating the new voter. Marvin Helton says he’s pleased he signed up, and looks forward to voting.

“I feel good, and feel like I can finally do something,” he says.

After registering, organizers of the drive instructed Helton and other new voters about upcoming elections, including the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court next April. Peggy Creer of the Milwaukee County League of Women Voters says her organization plans an elaborate education effort around the race. She says for one, candidates will be featured on the League’s website.

“We will be sending questions to the candidates. Every candidate gets the same questions, usually four questions. They are told there’s a word limit, they type in their answers and we publish them verbatim,” she says.

Creer says for instance, candidates could be asked to describe the duties of the court or their judicial philosophy. Also, new registrants will receive text messages reminding them of election dates and deadlines regarding absentee ballots.

UW-Madison Political Science Professor David Canon says the stakes are high in next year’s Supreme Court race, and some may still be reeling from what happened this year. Liberal-backed candidate Lisa Neubauer seemed to have the edge. But then, conservative Judge Brian Hagedorn saw a surge in support in the final days and captured the seat by only 6,000 votes.

Hagedorn’s victory deepens the conservative majority on the court 5-2. Canon believes Democrats will fight to narrow the majority, even though they won’t be able to turn over the court.

“I think they’ll be playing the long game here and they definitely will be trying just as hard to pick up that seat, with the hope of flipping it next time around,” he says.

Canon notes that the Supreme Court election will be held the same day as Wisconsin’s presidential preference primary in April. He says that could bode well for Democrats if several Democratic presidential candidates are still battling for the nomination.

“Because you have the hotly contested Democratic primary and then President Trump being largely unopposed, it means you’re more likely to see a higher turnout on the Democratic side, which will help the more liberal candidate for the court,” he says.

But UW-Milwaukee Professor Emeritus Mordecai Lee cautions against writing off Republicans. He says the Supreme Court race will give them a reason to go to the polls too — even in the absence of a lively GOP presidential primary.

“Republicans can count on a very large turnout by a very large base. They’ve got increasing confidence that they can win the race because they won just the last one. So, I think it’s going to be one of those near close races, near death match. I think it’s going to be a trench war, fighting for inches,” he says.

Lee says with Wisconsin being a swing state, it’s likely that national groups will get involved in the race, and not hold off until the November elections. He notes that in the final days leading up to April’s Supreme Court election, at least one national group poured $1 million into conservative candidate Hagedorn’s campaign. And the late surge in support likely contributed to his victory.