Attempting to shift balance, Janet Protasiewicz says she’ll bring fairness to state Supreme Court

By: - December 12, 2022 6:45 am

Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz is one of four candidates running for state Supreme Court this spring. (Janet for Justice)

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz says that if elected to the state Supreme Court in April, she’s not looking to just establish a liberal version of the reliably conservative voting block that currently controls the court. 

The former prosecutor is one of four candidates and two liberals running for the open seat being left by retiring conservative Justice Patience Roggensack. Joining Protasiewicz in the race are fellow liberal Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell, conservative Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow and former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, a conservative who was unseated from the court in 2020 by liberal Justice Jill Karofsky. 

For years, a conservative block has controlled the court, making consequential decisions on labor rights, the state’s political maps and voting rights. The state Democratic Party sees this election as a chance to swing the balance of power in the state, and a liberal win would certainly be a massive shift in state government, but Protasiewicz says the goal should be a court that focuses on the rule of law, not scoring wins for any political party. 

“I don’t want to be doing the same thing that I’m accusing the far right of doing, for the other side,” she says. Independent, fair, the rule of law, the Constitution, the case law that’s been developed, that everybody gets a fair shake, that you don’t come into the Supreme Court and feel like there’s already a thumb on the scale and that you’re not going to get a fair shake.” 

Instead, she says she wants to bring that independence to the body in a way she believes stands in contrast with the two conservative leaning candidates also running for the seat — who she says are  taking direction from the Republicans in control of the state Legislature and former President Donald Trump.

“I try to tell people across the board, when I point my finger at them and I say, ‘you’re going to take your bidding from Mar-a-Lago,’ that’s not who I am. Gov. Evers, Joe Biden, [I’m] not taking any direction from them,” Protasiewicz tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “The court needs change, the court really needs to change. Those four seats have voted in such a block, so consistently, and with results that, in my opinion, are so unfair to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin.” 

The next edition of the Supreme Court, if controlled by liberals, is likely to hear challenges on several major issues, including the currently gerrymandered state legislative maps and Wisconsin’s 1849 law outlawing abortion. Protasiewicz says that while she won’t be a wing of the Democratic party, she would come to the court with her own values. 

“I’d say that in addition to independence, you bring your values to the court everyday,” she says. “You bring your values, values like your belief in democracy, which kind of leads me in the way that I philosophically think about gerrymandering and the maps. Philosophically, values leading me to believe that a woman’s right to make decisions over her own body should be just that, not made by the government but made by the person who’s ultimately being affected by them. I think on some of those hot button issues, I can certainly tell you what my values are.”

The race for state Supreme Court will come just months after the state’s 2022 midterm elections, which focused heavily on the criminal justice system and included attacks accusing Democrats Evers and U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes of being soft on crime. That focus is likely to reemerge in the Supreme Court race. 

Dorow, who recently gained attention for presiding over the criminal trial of the man who killed six people when he drove through the Waukesha Christmas Parade last year, has already been criticized for her decision not to require a man convicted of domestic violence charges to report to jail right away. Instead, the man drove to Illinois to attack two people and is being held there on attempted homicide charges. 

Protasiewicz says that in her court in Milwaukee, she’s always kept her focus on upholding the constitution and keeping the community safe. She pointed to her experience presiding over drug court, which requires a judge to assess the legality of police searches, as a time she had to stand up for a defendant’s constitutional rights. 

“Were there from time to time cases where I knew that the defendant was guilty, but I was suppressing those drugs? Of course,” she says. “Because what’s paramount is that credo, that we were all raised with when we started, of do justice and follow the Constitution. And that’s what you have to do. So sometimes you suppress things and you say, that person who I know was guilty is getting off, but then you think back to when this country was founded and what we would hear is you’d rather have 10 guilty people go free than one innocent person be convicted, right?” 

But, she says, she also believes the community should be kept safe, and in her time overseeing domestic violence and homicide courts in Milwaukee, that often meant imposing “heavy sentences.” 

“There’s some people doing some really dangerous things in this community,” she says. “And the community deserves to be safe, and you work very, very hard to keep the community safe and get the bad guys off the streets. I would say that I’ve probably incarcerated more people than any of my opponents. But keep in mind where I have been assigned some of the worst cases in Milwaukee County.” 

Because the court’s balance is up for grabs, the race is expected to garner a massive amount of outside attention. Subsequent races for seats on the court have broken fundraising records and this one is expected to do the same. An outside group funded by right-wing billionaire Richard Uihlein has already announced that it plans to spend millions of dollars supporting Kelly. 

In 2013, Protasiewicz challenged now-Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley for her seat in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. Bradley, who had been appointed to the seat in 2012 by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, was able to win after receiving an unprecedented amount of support from outside groups for a local court race. The conservative PAC Club for Growth spent about $167,000 to boost Bradley in that race. 

Protasiewicz says that experience will benefit her heading into what is likely to be a hard fought campaign in a state divided nearly 50-50. 

“That is an experience, at the time I was going through it, I didn’t find it particularly pleasant, but it has certainly had extreme collateral benefits for me right now,” she says. “Because I know what that outside money is like, I know what campaigning is like, I know what tough contested races are like. I’ve got a good background in the DA’s office, being a fair and impartial prosecutor and hopefully people think I’m a fair and good judge. And I really really like people and I love our state. Our state is absolutely beautiful. And our citizens deserve better.” 

The spring primary in which the four-person race will be whittled down to two is set for February 21 and the general election will be held April 4.

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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