MADISON, Wis. — The two candidates vying for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court squared off Tuesday afternoon in what appeared to be the only scheduled debate leading up to next month’s spring election.

With the ideological balance of the court up for grabs, those on the ballot traded plenty of jabs during the event hosted by the State Bar of Wisconsin.

What You Need To Know

  • Though the race is nonpartisan, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz is backed by liberal groups and former Justice Dan Kelly is supported by conservatives 
  • The race has broken national spending records with $30 million spent by the two sides, according to an estimate by WisPolitics
  • Wisconsin voters will decide the ideological balance of the state's high court when they cast their vote on April 4

While you wouldn’t know it by watching TV commercials, the race for the state’s high court is technically nonpartisan. Regardless, record-breaking money has poured into both campaigns, which is why it was no surprise that questions about impartiality took center stage.

Staying impartial despite record spending

Among them, the candidates were asked, if elected, how they will be able to fairly hear cases from groups so heavily invested, quite literally, in defeating them.

“We have a First Amendment for a very good reason, and it protects a broad and robust conversation,” explained former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, who lost a previous bid in 2020. “I don’t resent at all, organizations trying to keep me from coming to the Supreme Court.”

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Republican-backed Dan Kelly and Democratic-supported Janet Protasiewicz participate in a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Kelly went on to call it “the best tradition of democracy in our country,” while his opponent, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, vowed to step aside when necessary.

“I have been very, very clear that we need a recusal rule for our Supreme Court, extremely clear,” said Protasiewicz. “I’m also well aware of the amount of money that the Democratic Party has contributed to my campaign.”

Are outside groups influencing potential cases?

It is not just about spending money. Mere support from outside groups matters too, especially when it comes to issues such as abortion, which could very well end up before the state Supreme Court, depending on who wins in April.

“I have told everyone I am making no promises to you, no promises,” said Protasiewicz. “Emily’s List has endorsed me; Planned Parenthood has endorsed me. I am not aware of any campaign contribution from either of those entities. But I can tell you that if my opponent is elected, I can tell you with 100% certainty that 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books.”

“This seems to be a pattern for you, Janet,” replied Kelly. “Just telling lies about me. So, you don’t know what I’m thinking about that abortion ban. You have no idea. These things you do not know. What I know is this: The endorsements I have received are entirely because of conversations that I had with individuals and organizations in which they asked me what kind of a justice will you be.”

Restoring the Court’s reputation

Both campaigns have used a rather decisive tone in their advertisements. Kelly has accused his opponent of running a dishonest campaign, while Protasiewicz has accused him of being corrupt and putting justice up for sale.

Debate moderators also asked how each of the candidates how they would work to restore public confidence in the Supreme Court, if elected.

“I think, first, by winning,” answered Kelly. “So, when I say that my opponent has told sloppy and irresponsible lies, I mean that in every possible way.”

“When my opponent was on the Supreme Court, he voted to close a number of the administrative conferences,” said Protasiewicz. “Those conferences should be open. We need to be transparent.”

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Democratic-supported Janet Protasiewicz participates in a debate Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Wisconsin’s race for Supreme Court has already blown past previous national spending records. According to estimates from WisPolitics, the two sides have spent $30 million so far.

That figure breaks a previous record of roughly $15 million spent on the Illinois Supreme Court race in 2004.