MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz won her first 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court Tuesday night.

Protasiewicz, who was backed by liberals in the technically nonpartisan race, defeated former Justice Daniel Kelly, who lost his previous bid for the state’s high court to Jill Karofsky in 2020. Like Protasiewicz, Karofsky was also supported by Democrats.

What You Need To Know

  • Milwaukee Co. Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, who was backed by Democrats, won a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court Tuesday night
  • Conservatives held a majority on the court for 15 years, until Protasiewicz's victory
  • Protasiewicz's win could prove pivotal on issues ranging from abortion rights to the boundaries of legislative maps in Wisconsin

Protasiewicz’s victory Tuesday night means the ideological balance of the court now shifts to a 4-3 advantage in favor of liberals, at least for the next two years, which will include the 2024 presidential election. For the past 15 years, conservatives have held the advantage and were one vote short of overturning President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in Wisconsin.

“[Voters] were ready to put aside the partisanship and put aside the extremism and to have an impartial court, and a court that makes decisions based on the law, not on a political agenda,” Protasiewicz told the crowd gathered for her watch party at the Saint Kate hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

The victory could also prove critical on issues from abortion rights to legislative maps in Wisconsin — two lawsuits that are likely to come before the high court, especially now in the wake of Protasiewicz's victory.

Record-breaking resources

Spending poured into the race from both sides completely shattered national spending records. By some estimates, the money spent tripled the previous record of $15 million put into the Illinois state Supreme Court race in 2004.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Protasiewicz had outraised her opponent by a margin of 5-to-1 and received approximately $9 million total from the state Democratic Party. Ultimately, she and her supporters had a nearly $6 million advantage going into election day, having spent almost $23 million compared to the $17 million spent by Kelly and his backers.

Protasiewicz delivers her victory speech on election night to a crowd gathered at Saint Kate hotel in Milwaukee, Wis. (Spectrum News 1/Anthony DaBruzzi)

“I think that really speaks to how much is at stake, and I think it’s a good sign for democracy in Wisconsin that people are that engaged, that they’re taking time to support campaigns, to worry about the candidates and really make a choice,” explained campaign spokesperson Sam Roecker. “I think that speaks volumes about the importance of this election, but also the willingness of Wisconsinites to make sure they vote.”

A de facto referendum on abortion rights

In many ways, the race for Supreme Court in Wisconsin was an unofficial referendum on abortion rights in the Badger State. From the beginning of her campaign, Protasiewicz was transparent about her values and made the issue a focal point of her campaign, much like Gov. Tony Evers did last fall.

“Our state is taking a step forward to a better and brighter future where our rights and freedoms will be protected,” Protasiewicz said during her victory speech.

Protasiewicz picked up endorsements from Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups during the campaign, while anti-abortion groups backed her opponent.

Supporters cheer and chant Protasiewicz's name during her victory speech Tuesday night. (Spectrum News 1/Anthony DaBruzzi)

According to a Spectrum News/Siena College poll from last fall, 72% of Wisconsinites think Wisconsin should update its 174-year-old law banning abortion. However, there are varying opinions about how far it should go.

A pending lawsuit challenging the ban from 1849 is expected to make its way to the state Supreme Court, especially now in the wake of Protasiewicz's victory.

Protasiewicz, who is filling the seat of retiring conservative Justice Patience Roggensack, will be sworn in later this summer after Roggensack’s term expires July 31.