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Wisconsin court candidate won't hear Democrats' lawsuits

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Democrats' choice in a high-stakes Wisconsin Supreme Court race said Wednesday that she would not hear cases brought by the Wisconsin Democratic Party because it has donated $2.5 million to her campaign.
Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice and current candidate for the bench Dan Kelly speaks during the Wisconsin Counties Association Legislative Conference at the Madison Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Samantha Madar/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Democrats' choice in a high-stakes Wisconsin Supreme Court race said Wednesday that she would not hear cases brought by the Wisconsin Democratic Party because it has donated $2.5 million to her campaign.

But her Republican-backed opponent would not make a similar pledge for cases brought by the GOP.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz faces Dan Kelly in the April 4 election, with majority control of the state's highest court at stake.

The court is expected to hear a challenge to Wisconsin's 1849 law banning abortion, and liberals have promised to put a case before the court that would allow it to overturn Republican-drawn legislative districts.

Protasiewicz said she would not recuse herself from cases involving abortion or legislative redistricting, even though groups active on those issues are backing her campaign.

The winner of the race will also be in place heading into the 2024 presidential election in battleground Wisconsin. The court, currently controlled 4-3 by conservatives, came within one vote of overturning President Joe Biden's narrow win in 2020.

With so much on the line, the race has already broken national spending records for a state supreme court election. More than $18 million has been spent so far, with more than a month to go before Election Day. The previous record spent on a state supreme court race was just over $15 million in Illinois in 2004.

Protasiewicz was asked after she spoke at a meeting of the Wisconsin Counties Association about whether she would step aside from cases brought by Democrats given the party's donation of $2.5 million to her campaign last week.

“I think that $2.5 million is obviously a significant amount of money,” Protasiewicz told reporters. "I don’t know if the public could really say she’s fair when she’s received two and a half million dollars from a particular entity.”

She said her decision would only apply to cases brought by the Democratic Party, not cases brought by others who are supported by Democrats.

Kelly, who also spoke to county officials, declined to make a similar pledge for cases involving the Wisconsin Republican Party, which donated money and helped run his 2020 campaign. He said he would decide recusal on a case-by-case basis.

Kelly worked for Republicans, providing legal advice to the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party about its plan to field fake electors for former President Donald Trump after he lost in 2020. Kelly said he spoke with the GOP chairman for about 30 minutes, but declined to offer details Wednesday citing attorney-client privilege.

The Biden electors have sued the fake Trump electors and are seeking $2.4 million in damages. Kelly said he would recuse himself from that case if it were to make it to the Supreme Court and his conversation was part of the lawsuit.

Trump endorsed Kelly in the 2020 race. When asked if he was seeking Trump's endorsement this year, Kelly said Wednesday: “I've not really thought about it that much.”

Protasiewicz's position on recusal is the same as that taken by Justice Jill Karofsky in 2020 when she won the race that year against Kelly. He was appointed to the court in 2016 and served four years. He is now running again for a full 10-year term, with majority control of the court at stake.

Protasiewicz has made her support for abortion rights a centerpiece of her campaign. Kelly has accused her of going too far and essentially of committing to voting to overturn the state's abortion ban, should the case come before the court as expected.

Protasiewicz has not said how she would rule on that or any other specific case.

Kelly blasted Protasiewicz for prioritizing “the rule of Janet” over the rule of law.

“Janet having promised to put her thumb on the scales of justice, in some cases at least, I think that really raises the question of whether she can safely serve on the Supreme Court consistently with the constitutional rules of ethics,” Kelly said.

Kelly is endorsed by three anti-abortion groups in Wisconsin, and the leader of Wisconsin Right to Life said in 2016 that Kelly had done legal work for the group. When asked Wednesday what that entailed, Kelly said, “Frankly, I don't even recall.”

Protasiewicz also said she did not anticipate recusing herself from cases involving redistricting. Kelly has accused her of improperly signaling that she would overturn the GOP-drawn maps since she has called them “rigged.”

A liberal voting rights attorney has promised to bring a new lawsuit challenging the GOP maps should Protasiewicz win. Whoever wins the April election will join the court in August.


Associated Press/Report for America writer Harm Venhuizen contributed to this report.

Scott Bauer, The Associated Press