Why 2023 State Supreme Court race is just as important as 2022 midterms

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MADISON Wis. (CBS 58) -- The stakes will most certainly be high in the upcoming midterms, but the state Supreme Court race in April could be even more important, experts say.

Right now, many voters are focused on the Nov. election, but that race and the state Supreme Court contest in 2023 could decide whether Republicans will gain an even stronger grip on Wisconsin politics.

“There’s a lot up for grabs,” said UW-Madison Political Science Professor Ryan Owens, who closely follows the state and U.S. Supreme Court.

State Supreme Court races are non-partisan but the ideology of the candidates typically leans one way or the other. Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the court.

This week, the first conservative-leaning candidate, former Justice Dan Kelly, announced he’s going to run again for a seat of the state’s high court. Kelly lost his seat on the bench in 2020 to Jill Karofsky, who represents one of the three liberal justices. He was appointed by then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2016.

Kelly joins Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasieicz, two liberal-leaning candidates looking to replace outgoing conservative Justice Patience Roggensack.

It’s a race Owens says will have implications no matter the outcome.

“I think anytime you have a court that's as closely divided as this one, and the potential to maybe swing it, I think everyone is going to be all in on that,” Owens said.

Electing a liberal justice to the high court next year would give Democrats a change to relitigate cases such as the new Legislative and Congressional maps, also known as redistricting, the state’s criminal abortion ban, and absentee ballot drop boxes.

If Republicans win the seat, overhauling voting laws is likely a top priority. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who faces reelection, has centered his campaign on being the “goalie” to block Republican attempts to rework election laws.

Evers has vetoed more than a dozen GOP election bills that would reshape elections.

Owens said the outcome of the governor's race will impact voter enthusiasm in the spring. If Evers wins reelection, Republicans will have momentum on their side in April. If Republican governor candidate Tim Michels wins this fall, Democrats are expected to have an edge.

“I think it's an unsettled constituency in Wisconsin right now,” Owens said. “I think people are not happy with some things and they are happy with others and the question is who do they blame for it.”

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