In only state Supreme Court debate, candidates trade accusations of partisan ties
MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) --The two final candidates for Wisconsin's upcoming Supreme Court election accused one another of having troubling political connections Tuesday during the only debate they'll have during this campaign.
Liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, and Dan Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice who currently is a private attorney, fielded a variety of questions ranging from abortion and redistricting to whether they'd recuse themselves from cases involving groups who've campaigned against them.
The April 4 election will decide who controls the state's high court. Conservatives currently have a 4-3 advantage. The court's balance may well determine the outcome of future challenges to the state's abortion ban, its legislative voting districts and election laws.
CBS 58 Capitol correspondent Emilee Fannon was one of three reporters asking questions to Protasiewicz and Kelly during the debate.
Throughout the debate, the candidates pointed to their opponent's ties to partisan politics.
"My opponent is accepting millions from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and that presents a major problem," Kelly said about Protasiewicz accepting $2.5 million from state Democratic party.
Protasiewicz countered by attacking Kelly over his conversations with the state Republican party's former chair, Andrew Hitt, who discussed with Kelly the effort after the 2020 election to submit an alternate slate of 10 fake electors for former President Donald Trump.
"I am running against one of the most extreme partisan candidate in the history of this state," Protasiewicz said.
Kelly maintained he was unaware of the fake elector plan when Hitt contacted him. Protasiewicz also pointed to Kelly taking the Wisconsin GOP as a client in recent months.
Kelly said Protasiewicz was misleading voters because there's a difference between working for Republicans and taking on the party as a client.
"I've had clients because, as it turns out, I'm a lawyer," Kelly said. "My client asked me to address various groups around the state about how elections work."
Throughout the campaign, abortion has been one of the race's defining issues. Pro-life groups, such as Right to Life Wisconsin and Pro-Life Wisconsin, have backed Kelly.
Pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood and EMILY's List, have shared their support for Protasiewicz. The Milwaukee judge repeated Tuesday she personally believes women should have the right to abortion, but that doesn't automatically mean she'd vote to strike down Wisconsin's ban, which makes it a felony to provide abortion, and only makes exceptions for cases where a mother's life is at risk.
"I've been clear any decision I render will be based solely on the law and constitution. I've told everyone I'm making no promises to you," Protasiewicz said. "My personal opinion is that should be the woman's right to make the reproductive health decision, period."
Protasiewicz said Kelly's endorsements were proof he'd be a reliable vote to uphold the abortion ban, citing the Pro-Life website that states it endorses candidates "who have pledged to champion pro-life values."
Kelly accused her of making another misleading remark and argued those endorsements are not an indicator of how he's rule from the bench.
"This seem to be a pattern for Janet, just telling lies about me. You don't know what I'm thinking about that abortion ban," Kelly said. "You have no idea. What I know is this: the endorsements I receive are entirely based on conversations I have with individuals and organizations in which they ask me, 'What kind of justice will you be?'"
With the possibility of a future challenge to the state's maps, Kelly criticized his opponent for talking about how she may approach redistricting after calling the current maps "rigged."
"We know the maps are not fair," Protasiewicz said. "We have battleground elections. We know they are not fair."
Kelly accusing Protasiewicz of plotting to "steal legislative authority," from the GOP-controlled Legislature, who's responsible for redrawing the maps every 10 years.
Protasiewicz, who's being targeted in a series of ads highlighting cases where she handed out light sentences or no prison time, defended attacks made by Kelly.
Kelly criticized Protasiewicz for not sentencing someone convicted of sexual assault because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's interesting that a handful of cases have been cherrypicked and selected and twisted," she said.
The Milwaukee judge and former prosecutor also added she would not have served in those roles if "the community and the rest of my colleagues thought I wasn't handing down sufficient sentence."
Kelly said he will not accept campaign funds from the state Republican Party after stating a few weeks ago he would welcome their support. The former justice is receiving some assistance from party officials for get out the vote efforts and research.
Protasiewicz also suggested possible changes to settle case law when asked about Act 10, absentee ballot drop boxes, and the governor's emergency powers, all controversial issues that have been upheld by the high court.
"Obviously, we all follow precedent all the time. That's what you want to do, Protasiewicz said. "But you know, precedent changes."
Both candidates did signal support for a proposed constitutional amendment to give judges more discretion when setting bail amounts. It will appear on the April 4th ballot.
Early, in-person absentee voting for the spring election began Tuesday. Early voting dates and times vary by municipality. You can find your election day polling place or request a mailed absentee ballot at myvote.wi.gov.