Jill Karofsky on Wisconsin’s election mess

Criticizing a Supreme Court decision and 'corruption' in the Legislature and the court

Judge Jill Karofsky (via Jill for Justice)
Judge Jill Karofsky (Photo: Jill for Justice)

In a video-chat press conference at 4:00 pm on Election Day, Judge Jill Karofsky, candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court, thanked poll workers and others who are serving the public during the pandemic, and reminded voters that if they get in line by 8:00 pm, “you can stay in that line until you are able to cast your ballot.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that this election was not able to be postponed,” Karofsky added, “and that the advice from health professionals wasn’t followed to minimize large gatherings.”

“There was plenty of time for changes to be made, not only to protect public health, but the right to vote as well,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of how the political system is broken, including in our courts, by the influence of big money, special interests.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) works the polling location wearing plastic gloves and gown in addition to a face mask in his Racine-area district on 4/7/20. (Photo contributed by Vos office).
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) works the polling location in his Racine-area district on 4/7/20. (Photo contributed by the Vos office).

Karofsky did not answer a question about whether she believed the Republicans deliberately held the election during the pandemic to depress turnout, in order to give her opponent an advantage. Instead, she criticized Assembly Speaker Robin Vos for “telling all of us that it is completely safe to vote, but when he convenes the Assembly, they don’t meet in person. And then there is a picture of him working today at a voting site where he is in full — it looks like hazmat from head to toe. He’s got a mask on, he’s got gloves. He’s got what looks to be some sort of, I don’t know what — a gown maybe.”

Yet by insisting on holding the election today, the Legislature forced ordinary voters to choose “whether or not they were going to remain safe … or exercise their constitutional right to vote,” she said.

Karofsky also criticized Monday’s decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court — the body she seeks to join — to overturn Gov. Tony Evers’ order postponing the Tuesday, April 7 election until June.

“When the court issues a ruling just two hours after a filing, they can’t possibly examine the law, the precedent or the arguments of the parties involved,” she said. 

But she declined to say whether she will consider legal action based on voter disenfranchisement or the large number of absentee ballots requested, but not received, by voters in time to be filled out and returned or postmarked by Election Day.

“It’s too early right now to think about what legal remedies may be available after the election,” she said.

“But,” she added, “we have always been concerned about the voices of the people of Wisconsin being heard and we’re going to continue to have those concerns until every last ballot in this race is counted.”

Asked if she agrees with Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s dissent in the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision, which asserts that the court was wrong to find that the governor does not have the emergency powers to move the date of the election, Karofsky repeated that the court did not take enough time to deliberate.

In her dissent, Walsh Bradley wrote that the majority, “Offering scant rationale for its misguided orders … gives Wisconsinites an untenable choice: endanger your safety and potentially your life by voting or give up your right to vote by heeding the recent and urgent warnings about the fast growing pandemic. These orders are but another example of this court’s unmitigated support of efforts to disenfranchise voters.”

“Neither the law nor common sense support the majority’s tenuous and callous order,” Walsh Bradley continued.

Gov. Tony Evers explains his Safer at Home order during a COVID-19 briefing via phone on 03/24/20.
Gov. Tony Evers explains his Safer at Home order during a COVID-19 briefing (photo by Melanie Conklin)

Pointing to the governor’s powers in a state of emergency to issue “such orders as he or she deems necessary for the security of persons and property,” Walsh Bradley noted that the court had never before had the opportunity to interpret this particular provision of state law. “But the interpretation is clear given the familiar maxim that “[s]tatutory language is given its common, ordinary, and accepted meaning, except that technical or specially-defined words or phrases are given their technical or special definitional meaning.”

“Nevertheless, the majority takes the decision away from the executive branch despite the statutes that place such a decision within its purview.”

Karofsky agreed that the decision was callous and rushed, but did not comment on the specific executive versus legislative powers issue.

“This is what I’ve said over and over in this race,” she said. “We can’t have a Supreme Court where decisions are made before anyone walks into the state Supreme Court chamber.”

Calling both the Legislature and the conservative majority on the state Supreme Court “corrupt,” Karofsky said that no matter what the governor did about the problem of voting during the pandemic, “the other two branches were going to stop it.”

Daniel Kelly. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2017-18.
Daniel Kelly. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2017-18.

Her opponent, Justice Daniel Kelly, who recused himself from the Court’s decision on Evers’ order to move the election, is “very, very happy with the for sale sign that is in front of our Supreme Court right now, and he does not want that taken down,” Karofsky said.

Kelly has been criticized for not recusing himself in other cases, involving his donors (notably the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, whose board members have contributed to Kelly’s campaign, and in whose favor Kelly has repeatedly voted while on the Supreme Court). 

Karofsky said she would recuse herself from any case involving the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, which has supported her campaign. 

“I have made a commitment ensure that we have a strong and a clear recusal rule on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court,” Karofsky said, “… because what happens when we are beholden to special interests, is you create the kind of chaos that we are seeing on today, April 7 of 2020.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.