SCOWIS candidates respond to attacks, defend judicial records
MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Candidates vying for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court have all faced criticism during the campaign -- either personal attacks from one of their rivals or television ads painting them as the wrong choice.
CBS 58 sat down with Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell, former conservative Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow about how they're responding to accusations and why they believe they're best suited to serve on the state's high court.
Protasiewicz, who currently leads the field in fundraising, has been the most outspoken candidate on issues that might come before the court such as abortion rights and a potential legal fight over redistricting.
She's called the state maps "rigged" and heavily centered protecting abortion rights in her campaign messaging. While the race is nonpartisan, her campaign is not holding much back, including airing ads showing her support for reproductive rights while also attacking the conservatives in the race as "extremists."
"I think in regard to really critical important issues that are going to come before the Supreme Court, the electric really has the right to know what a candidate's values are and what their opinions are and what their thoughts are," Protasiewicz said.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin filed an ethics complaint against Protasiewicz accusing her of prejudicing cases based on her comments, which the campaign dismissed as a political stunt.
The judge has secured an endorsement from Emily's List, an organization that works to elect Democratic women and pro-choice candidates. It's the first time in the group's 38-year history choosing to endorse in a state judicial race, which underscores how the issue of abortion is shaping the race.
Despite sharing her beliefs and embracing the progressive label, when asked why she would not side with Governor Tony Evers’ challenge to repeal the 1849 criminal abortion ban based on her statements, Protasiewicz said, "I would never prejudge."
"If and when that case comes before the Supreme Court, it will have a fair and independent look."
Conservatives have also attacked Protasiewicz for decisions she's made as a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, including three cases where she rejected Milwaukee County prosecutors' recommendations to sentence felons to prison. Instead, Protasiewicz sentenced each individual to probation and credit for days served in jail as first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Two of those cases involved adults who sexually assaulted a minor and another included a woman who pleaded guilty to neglecting her 16-year-old son, who later died.
Protasiewicz said she wouldn't have ruled any differently looking back on those cases and responded to the criticism by saying she's "not a rubber stamp" for the district attorney's office.
"Every single case is unique. I would not be ruling on different cases just to help me in a race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court," Protasiewicz said. "Integrity is one of my hallmarks. I looked at what I looked at in each one of those unique cases and made a decision that I thought was appropriate."
While she's faced criticism, Protasiewicz has also fired back by first raising concerns in an interview with UpNorth News about a school Dan Kelly and Jennifer Dorow attended, Regent University, a law school founded by chancellor Pat Robertson.
Dorow graduated from Regent in 1996, and Kelly in 1991 when it was still called the Christian Broadcasting Network School of Law. Protasiewicz said their attendance "raises some red flags" because the "law school is very far right."
When asked to elaborate, Protasiewicz said, "It raises red flags as to whether or not Dan Kelly and Jennifer Dorow can be fair and impartial to that 1849 ban, in regard to marriage equality -- it just raises so many red flags."
Dorow accused Protasiewicz of attacking her religious beliefs and critiqued the judge for sharing her thoughts on issues likely to come before the court.
"It's really unfortunate she's attacking my Christianity in this race," Dorow said. "I'm deeply devoted to Christianity, but like any issue that comes before the court, it's not my political views or my preferences that guides how I make decisions on the bench, it's the law. She's openly campaigning with this political rhetoric, that frankly, no judicial candidate should do."
Jim Dick, a campaign spokesman for Kelly, said in a statement, "Sounds as if Janet Protasiewicz, who got her law degree from a Catholic University, Marquette, is saying Christians in public service are somehow a threat to her. If so, it once again demonstrates her unfamiliarity with our constitution, which provides that there shall never be any religious test as a qualification for office."
Mitchell, the other liberal in the race, is a former prosecutor and currently serves as a Dane County judge. As a judge, he's been responsible for overseeing the county's juvenile and drug court.
He is currently in last place with fundraising and is lagging in endorsements. With his campaign raising $223,000 to date, he's the only candidate who's been unable to run TV ads.
Despite that, Mitchell said he's continuing to connect directly with voters.
"Money should not buy votes, and I think at the end of the day, you have to be on the ground talking to people," said Mitchell. "So, I'm really focusing on the work that I've done in the community, and more as a judge, to make our communities safer."
He's secured endorsements from a number of state representatives and Madison officials, including support from former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
Mitchell, who also vowed to protect a women's right to an abortion, has not received as much criticism as Protasiewicz.
"I put a stark emphasis that there are two races -- there's one race that talks about the necessity for reproductive health, voting maps and gerrymandering, but there's this whole other side conversation where we need to talk about what courts can do. What should they be doing to make sure it is fair for those in our state who need it the most,” Mitchell said.
Kelly, who was endorsed by then-President Donald Trump in 2020 and eventually lost his seat on the high court to liberal Jill Karofsky, has faced recent backlash for his ties to the fake elector scheme.
During a deposition to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, the former state GOP chair Andrew Hitt said Kelly had "extensive conversations" about the plan. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Republican National Committee paid Kelly $120,000 to provide advice on "election integrity" issues.
Kelly's campaign said he did provide legal counsel to both the state and national GOP organizations and responded to the criticism by arguing there's no wrongdoing in providing legal advice to clients.
"As a private citizen, Justice Kelly is free to provide legal advice and services to clients he chooses to represent," Dick said. "Every citizen is entitled to representation, as are political parties and other organizations.”
His connection comes as the high court could weigh in on crucial election lawsuits surrounding the 2024 presidential election, including recounts, absentee ballots and challenges to the outcome.
Some Republicans have also questioned Kelly's ability to win after losing by 10 points in 2020, a race that drew high turnout during a presidential year. Kelly brushed aside those concerns.
"Two presidential candidates are always going to turn out more votes than the Supreme Court candidate," Kelly said. "I think we're going to be just fine."
Kelly has argued he's the better choice by touting his ability to raise money from outside groups, including donations from Fair Court America, a group funded by Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein and support from the anti-abortion group Women Speak Out PAC.
As of Monday, Dorow is ahead of Kelly in fundraising. Since entering the race in November, Dorow has raised $756,000, meanwhile Kelly is at $476,000, according to campaign finance reports.
Protasiewicz has reported raising nearly $2.2 million overall -- that's more than all of her three opponents combined. In total, nearly $8 million has been spent on ads and independent expenditures between all four campaigns.
Kelly has also been blasted on conservative radio for refusing to endorse Dorow if she advances to the April general election. It comes as Kelly continues to cast doubts on Dorow's conservative record.
"What I won't do is tell people something I don't know what is to be true," Kelly said. "She's campaigning as a judicial conservative but there's nothing out there I've seen that would tell me what she means by that.
Dorow has vowed to endorse Kelly if he wins, and she called his unwillingness "unfortunate."
"Unity is important going forward, that's why all along I have pledged on Feb. 22 that if I am not the conservative candidate to come through the primary, I will endorse him," Dorow said. "It's unfortunate he has not made the same commitment."
Dorow entered the race with national name recognition for her role as the presiding judge in the Darrell Brooks case, the man who attacked the Waukesha Christmas parade in 2021.
She describes herself as the "law enforcement choice" in ads and often talks about her "fair but firm" composure during the Brooks trial when he was removed from the courtroom several times and made multiple outbursts.
The liberal group, A Better Wisconsin Together, has spent over $2 million trying to tarnish Dorow's reputation by accusing her in ads of "letting criminals off the hook" for her time as a judge, and before that, while serving as a Milwaukee County prosecutor.
One of the ads focuses on an Oak Creek man who authorities say planned a murder-for-hire plot by trying to kill his in-law in Illinois just days before he was supposed to report to jail for abusing his wife. The judge that presided over the case was Dorow, who gave the man two days to report to jail, which is when he plotted revenge on his soon-to-be ex-wife's parents.
"I've been presiding over cases for 11 years, over 16,000 cases. They are pulling out four cases among the 16,000 to paint an inaccurate picture. It's misleading and it couldn't be farther from the truth," Dorow said.
Dorow also has support from some pro-life groups and stated in her 2016 legal questionnaire that the worst U.S. Supreme Court decision was Lawrence v. Texas, the decision which struck down anti-sodomy laws.
When asked if she still considers that the worst ruling, Dorow said she never said that despite the questionnaire asking, "Worst Wisconsin or U.S. Supreme Court decision."
Dorow wrote, the 2003 ruling was "a prime example of judicial activism at its worst" and she doubled down on those comments during an interview.
"I didn't say it was the worst ruling, it's an example of what I believe is judicial activism," Dorow said.
"That's a U.S. Supreme Court decision that I am, of course, bound to follow and will follow in any decision that would implicate that type of right. It's not to say I don't support everyone in the state of Wisconsin. I, of course, do. But it's really how that case was decided, not what it decided, but the mythology it utilized in making that determination."
In response to Kelly's comments questioning her conservative record, Dorow defended experience by stating she would not be influenced by either party if elected.
"As a judicial conservative, what's more important to me is following the law and not pushing a political agenda on," said Dorow.
When asked if she'd want an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Kelly in 2020, Dorow said she's not focusing on that and has not spoken to the former president about receiving his blessing.