Why we should care about the Wisconsin Supreme Court win
OPINION: While abortion rights were a key driver in turnout, the closely watched election won by Democrat-supported Janet Protasiewicz may impact voting rights, gerrymandering and determining the outcome of the presidential race and control of the U.S. House and Senate in 2024.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
In what was one of the most closely watched and most expensive races of the election season, liberals scored a victory in the contest for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with potential implications for issues such as abortion, the 2024 election and gerrymandering.
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz beat former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly by an 11-point margin, giving liberals a 4-3 majority on the state’s highest court. The win for Judge Protasiewicz, who will serve a 10-year term, marks the first time liberals will enjoy control of the court in 15 years.
Wisconsin is one of 14 states that elects state Supreme Court justices.
Liberals will control the court until at least 2025 when the term of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley ends and the liberal judge is up for reelection.
While this state Supreme Court election was nonpartisan in a technical sense, political issues were most certainly on the ballot. And while judicial elections often receive little attention, this race is proof that while politics is local, local politics can have serious implications on a statewide and national level.
With $45 million spent on this election — the largest ever of any single state supreme court contest in the nation — the Wisconsin race is proof that people are taking a look at the role of courts and their power to affect policy.
There are several reasons why the results of the Wisconsin race matter. For example, abortion rights were a motivating factor for Democratic voters, as Wisconsin Democrats made abortion a key issue in the election, which drove turnout.
And abortion is one of the first issues the Wisconsin Supreme Court will likely confront. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with Dobbs. v. Jackson Women Health Organization and struck down the constitutional right to an abortion, an 1849 Wisconsin law criminalizing nearly all abortions was resurrected. The virtually total 1849 ban makes it a felony for a physician to perform abortions, with no exceptions for rape and incest, and a vaguely worded exception for life-saving “therapeutic abortions.”
A liberal majority on the state court is expected to strike down the 1849 law, in a state and a country where abortion rights enjoy majority support.
Another issue at stake in Wisconsin is voting rights. Wisconsin is one of the most extremely partisan gerrymandered states, providing Republicans with nearly permanent control.
The state Supreme Court voted to approve a Republican redistricting plan that amounted to hyper-partisan gerrymandering, providing the GOP with 63 of 99 seats in the state Assembly, and 23 of 33 seats in the state Senate. These rigged election laws have allowed Republicans to bake a two-thirds domination in the legislature, in a state that votes for Democrats and Republicans on a 50-50 basis.
The recent Republican supermajority win in the Wisconsin Senate allows lawmakers to impeach judges and the state’s Democratic governor.
Moreover, the Republican-controlled state legislature has enacted draconian measures to suppress voter turnout, such as voter ID requirements and curbs on absentee voting. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last year that absentee drop boxes were illegal, and banned people from submitting ballots on behalf of another voter. A newly constituted court could reverse Republican voter suppression laws and correct the grossly distorted election maps that gave the party an unfair advantage, and shift the balance of power in Wisconsin.
The shift in power on the Wisconsin court could disrupt the policy agenda of former GOP Gov. Scott Walker, who enacted a ban on collective bargaining rights for public employees and other efforts to weaken the competitiveness of the Democratic Party.
With the focus on issues such as abortion and voting rights, the Wisconsin Supreme Court race could provide lessons for other state races. Moreover, this critical battleground state could set the standard for the 2024 election season and even help determine the outcome of the presidential race and control of the U.S. House and Senate. In 2020, the Wisconsin high court rejected Trump’s effort to throw out ballots in predominantly Democratic counties. Challenges to Wisconsin voting laws could lead to the Wisconsin Supreme Court setting the rules for the 2024 election and changing the course of history.
This is what is at stake in Wisconsin.
David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is davidalove.com.
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