Judge Jill Karofsky declares victory in Wisconsin Supreme Court race

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

    At 7 p.m. on Monday, April 13, Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky declared that she was “deeply honored” and “absolutely humbled to be the next justice on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.”

    Karofsky was elected to a ten-year term on the court in a 53% to 47% victory over her opponent, Justice Daniel Kelly, according to the Associated Press with 57% of precincts reporting. Her election shrinks the conservative majority on the state Supreme Court from 5-2 to 4-3.

    On a live video chat from her living room, with her son Danny and daughter Daphne standing behind her, Karofsky thanked her family, friends and campaign staff and promised to be a nonpartisan justice.

    “We shouldn’t have had an election on Tuesday,” Karofsky said, criticizing decisions by the state Legislature and both the state and U.S. Supreme Courts to hold the in-person election in the midst of a pandemic, forcing voters to choose between risking their health and exercising their right to vote. 

    “It was an untenable decision, but the people of the state of Wisconsin rose up. Anyone who wasn’t brought to tears when they were looking at those people in Milwaukee voting on Tuesday, and voting in Green Bay on Tuesday, just doesn’t have a heart. It was unbelievable.”

    Asked about litigation based on last-minute rule changes that led to ballots being invalidated, and the legal fund the Karofsky campaign itself had set up, in anticipation of a legal battle over election results, Karofsky said, “I don’t know what the litigation is going to look like, but we can never, ever, ever, in this state, or this country, have a repeat of the voter suppression tactics that we saw on Tuesday, that can never happen again.”

    The press call was briefly interrupted when Karofsky asked her daughter to go to the door, where well-wishers were arriving to congratulate her, and, Karofsky called off-camera, “now the dog escaped.”

     “My colleagues on the bench all came and they just let my dog out. …  I forgot the question,” she told the reporters on the video chat.

    But she quickly recovered and answered the question: How would she work with the other justices on the Supreme Court she has criticized during the campaign for being “corrupt” and beholden to special interests? 

    “I’m looking forward to sitting down with them over a cup of coffee, or over a good Wisconsin beer, so we can put our differences aside so that we can go to work,” she said, “and we can make decisions for the people in the state of Wisconsin, I don’t anticipate there being any problem with that.”

    As for her promise to be nonpartisan, despite having accepted more than $1 million in support from the Democratic Party, Karofsky repeated her pledge to recuse herself from cases involving the party when she takes her seat on the bench.

    Special interest groups spent a record $5 million on the state Supreme Court race, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, with $2.4 million going to Karofsky and $2.5 million going to Kelly. The top spenders were A Better Wisconsin Together Political Fund, which spent nearly $1.9 million to support Karofsky, followed by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Republican State Leadership Committee which spent $1.1 million and $897,000, respectively, to support Kelly.

    Kelly, who was appointed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, issued a statement on Monday evening conceding the race. “It has been the highest honor of my career to serve the people of Wisconsin on their Supreme Court these past four years,” he said. “Obviously I had hoped my service would continue for another decade, but tonight’s results make clear that God has a different plan for my future. I congratulate Judge Karofsky and wish her well as she assumes the responsibilities of this important office.”

    Ruth Conniff
    Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.