Wisconsin High Court Candidates Set to Face Off in Tuesday Primary

MILWAUKEE (CN) – The race for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat features stark contrasts between an appointee of the Republican former governor, a liberal-leaning Madison judge and a Milwaukee law professor, presenting voters in the state with options on opposite ends of the political spectrum ahead of a primary election Tuesday.

Justice Daniel Kelly, appointed to the high court by Governor Scott Walker in 2016, faces off against Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky and Marquette University law professor Ed Fallone on Feb. 18. The top two candidates will move forward to the April 7 general election for a shot at a 10-year term on the state’s highest court.

Wisconsin Supreme Court interior. (Royalbroil/Creative Commons License)

Since the election of Justice Brian Hagedorn in April 2019, conservative-leaning justices have enjoyed a 5-2 majority, so if Kelly loses, the resulting 4-3 tilt would still advantage conservatives. This would, however, narrow the margin enough for liberals to have a fighting chance at a snagging a majority during the next judicial election in 2023.

Kelly has been a fixture of Wisconsin’s conservative establishment for years, earning props from conservatives starting in 2011 when, as a private attorney, he represented state Republicans in a federal trial over legislative redistricting. Liberals contended the maps had been illegally and secretively drawn to provide conservatives an outsized advantage. The case was ultimately dismissed by a Wisconsin federal judge last July.

Since his appointment to the state’s Supreme Court, Kelly, who is a member of the Federalist Society and has presented at Wisconsin Republican Party gatherings, has been accused of being in lockstep with conservative causes while painting himself as a strict adherent to straightforward constitutional interpretation. 

He graduated from Regent University School of Law, founded in 1977 by conservative televangelist Pat Robertson under the original name of Christian Broadcasting Network University before it rebranded to its current name in 1990.

Kelly has raised almost $1 million in the past 13 months, developing an enviable war chest boasting more than twice what Karofsky has rounded up and more than five times that of Fallone’s campaign. The justice has also secured key endorsements, including from President Donald Trump, who stressed the importance of Kelly retaining his seat at a Milwaukee rally in January.

During a chippy candidate forum at the Milwaukee Bar Association last month, Kelly defended himself against Karofsky’s accusations that he is corrupted by his conservative benefactors, because he repeatedly rules in conservatives’ favor. Kelly, who has accused Karofsky herself of being a liberal judicial activist, took her to task for what he called “disgusting slander,” and described her corruption allegations as being “beneath contempt.”

Karofsky has been perceived as toeing the party line as a dyed-in-the-wool Madison liberal, even though she opined in a speech at a Wisconsin Democratic convention in June that the legal and judiciary systems have become regrettably politicized.

The candidate who made her bones as an assistant prosecutor in the Dane County district attorney’s office and as executive director of the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Office of Crime Victims Services, was elected to the Dane County Circuit Court in 2017. She has signaled support for a number of issues traditionally key for liberals, including public schools, women’s rights and protecting the environment.

Karofsky has also tallied some important endorsements, including current Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet and former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle.

Fallone, a born and bred Marylander who perhaps has the lowest profile of the three candidates, has taught at Marquette’s law school for 27 years. He previously lost a race for a seat on the state’s high court to current Chief Justice Patience Roggensack in 2013, who beat Fallone with 57% of the vote.

A trait that sets Fallone apart is his Hispanic heritage. His mother was raised in Mexico and he has sat on the board of the lobbying arm of Voces de la Frontera, a group that advocates for the rights of immigrants, as well as Milwaukee nonprofit Centro Legal, which provides low-cost legal services.

The third candidate in the race at the moment, Fallone, has drawn himself as disfavoring party politics, despite the fact that he spoke at the same June Democratic convention as Karofsky and has banged the drum for many of the same liberal issues, including women’s rights and the need to eliminate the criminal justice system’s stacked deck against minorities.

Fallone, too, is not without endorsements, perhaps most importantly getting the nod from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is also up for reelection this year.

Although the primary is officially nonpartisan, the upshot of Tuesday’s race is a glimpse at whether the Badger State’s liberals or its conservatives are better poised to make an impact at the ballot box in November. A Kelly win would seem to suggest conservatives’ ground game is working in a crucial battleground state that is up to its eyeballs in partisan acrimony. Should Karofsky or Fallone prevail, Wisconsin voters could be in a mood similar to the blue wave seen in the 2018 midterms, when liberals won every statewide office, including the attorney general’s post and the governorship.

Other races featured in Tuesday’s primary are those for Milwaukee’s mayor and county executive, in addition to a special election to fill the 7th Congressional District seat vacated by GOP Representative Sean Duffy in September.

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