Jennifer Dorow, Daniel Kelly, Everett Mitchell and Janet Protasiewicz

Tuesday, Feb. 21, is the primary election for a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. Two candidates will advance to the April 4 general election. Who ultimately wins will significantly impact Wisconsin residents.

But this year it is possible that the outcome in February may render the election in April, for practical purposes, meaningless. The voters may have no significant choice between the two finalists. So the February primary election is of primary or “first rank importance.”

Currently the Supreme Court has four conservative and three progressive justices. Many decisions are decided on this 4 to 3 basis. A conservative justice is retiring. Will the conservatives maintain their control or will progressives become the new majority?

Liberals have not had a majority on the court since 2008. Literally the future direction of the state and the well being of its residents hangs in the balance.

This is not an exaggeration. There will be cases coming before the court in the near future that will affect you, and your family’s, health, welfare, quality of life and political rights.

Will you have clean, safe water to drink? Will you be helpless when a factory farm or mine locates next door? Will gerrymandering make your vote meaningless? Will the state legislature decide the winners of future elections?

Any hope that gerrymandering can be ended, voting rights protected, women’s right to choose reestablished, workers and minorities rights protected, environment damage mitigated or police reform enacted all depend which candidate wins this Supreme Court seat.

All judges in Wisconsin are supposed to be nonpartisan. Judges should be impartial and apply the law fairly regardless of their political views.

But in the real world judges are shaped by their backgrounds and beliefs. A judge’s political philosophy will influence how he/she rules on cases involving social and political issues. It is a naive to think politics is not involved in these judicial decisions or in judicial elections.

The February primary has four candidates on the ballot. Two of them are openly “conservative” and clearly aligned with the right wing and Republican party.

The other two candidates are “progressives” and the favorites of Democrats. It is possible that both conservatives, or both progressives, could win and advance to the April election. This would leave voters in April with no significant choice.

Typically primary elections have a low voter turnout. So a small minority of voters in February could decide the future of the Supreme Court. This election is too important to stay at home!

There are significant differences in judicial philosophy and political beliefs between the two conservative and two progressive candidates. Lets look at the candidates.

Judge Janet Protasiewicz is the leading candidate for the progressives. She has been a judge with the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, the largest Circuit Court in the state, since 2014.

Prior to that she was a Milwaukee County Assistant Attorney for 26 years. She is a graduate of Marquette University Law School. She has also taught law as an adjunct professor at Marquette.

Judge Protasiewicz says she is running “to restore integrity to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and get politics out of the courtroom.” She is concerned that the courts, and our democracy, are under attack from too much partisanship.

Conservative judges claim to not “legislate from the bench” but in many recent cases conservatives have twisted the law to fit their desired political outcomes. This has happened with voting rights, election procedures, abortion and gerrymandering cases.

Former Justice Daniel Kelly is one of the conservative candidates. His law degree is from Regent University Law School (a religious school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson). He was appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2016 by Gov. Scott Walker. He lost his reelection bid in 2020. These four years are his only judicial experience. He has never been a trial judge or prosecutor. His legal experience is in private practice doing commercial law.

While on the Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge Kelly voted consistently with the conservative majority. He talks about not bringing your personal beliefs to the bench but his rulings and his background tell a different story. While in private practice he represented the Wisconsin Republican Party in several lawsuits regarding gerrymandering and campaign finance issues. Since 2020 he has worked for a right wing political think tank. He has a record of being a partisan player.

Judge Jennifer Dorow is the other conservative candidate. She proudly declares this on her campaign website. She was appointed by Gov. Walker in 2011 to the Waukesha Circuit Court and became the district’s chief judge in 2017. Dorow was a defense attorney from 2000 to 2004 and an assistant district attorney in Waukesha from 2004 to 2009. In 2010, Dorow went into private practice. She is also graduate of Regent University Law School.

On her campaign website, Judge Dorow says “I am a judicial conservative who will not legislate from the bench...I am not constrained by political ideologies and academic thinking.”

Judge Dorow’s political leanings are not as visible as Kelly’s. But Judge Dorow has spoken out against a court ruling decriminalizing same sex relationships. Her husband was also appointed to a job with the Trump administration.

As I said, all judges, being human, will be affected by their personal beliefs and backgrounds.

Judge Everett Mitchell is the other progressive candidate. He has been a judge on the Dane County Circuit Court since 2016. He a graduate of Morehouse College, Princeton Theological Seminary and University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. He has two years experience as a Dane County Assistant District Attorney (2010-12). He worked for UW-Madison for four years (2012-16) and since 2011 he has been the pastor of a Madison Baptist church.

Judge Mitchell has few qualifications for the Supreme Court. He may be a good judge with future prospects, but in this election he will likely be a spoiler. By running he may simply siphon off enough votes for both conservatives to win.

Since Gov. Walker came to power in 2011, the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the legislature have been controlled by conservative Republicans. The people of Wisconsin have paid a huge price, in many ways, for over a decade of their destructive public policies.

Electing a progressive Supreme Court Justice is essential to undoing this legacy. Don’t blow this opportunity!

Vote on Feb. 21 and April 4.