Pro-life groups battle for Wisconsin Supreme Court
The future of protections for unborn babies takes center stage as voters choose the next state justice
Leading up to Wisconsin’s election for governor on Nov. 8, Gracie Skogman with Wisconsin Right to Life knocked on thousands of doors to mobilize the state’s pro-life voters. Three months later, she’s back at it, informing voters about the state Supreme Court election, which she says will be even more crucial for unborn babies in the state.
The top two judicial candidates in the Feb. 21 primary will advance to the general election on April 4. The outcome of the race to fill the court’s open seat will determine if the Wisconsin Supreme Court will maintain its 4-3 conservative majority or tip liberal. If liberals gain a majority, both pro-life and pro-abortion groups expect the court to block enforcement of an 1849 law that forced facilities to stop performing abortions in June.
But to Skogman it seems like most voters don’t know about the election’s importance. Voters will decide who will replace retiring Justice Patience D. Roggensack, a conservative whose 10-year term expires this year. One suburban mom Skogman spoke with while door-knocking around Milwaukee two weeks ago said she was pro-life. But she wasn’t planning to vote in the elections until after Skogman explained the implications of the Supreme Court race. That changed the mom’s mind. “Overall, I have heard that with almost everyone I’ve talked to, even people who are very engaged in the process,” said Skogman. “They’re engaged citizens, they care about the issues. I just think that it’s been a lack of clear messaging on the stakes.”
Groups on both sides of the political aisle are campaigning heavily in this race. Pro-lifers are banking on conservative candidates’ promises of judicial restraint. Liberal candidates have been outspoken in their support for abortion, hinting at a future ruling that would allow abortion businesses to resume in the state and heightening the political temperature of a technically nonpartisan race.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz is the top liberal candidate in the race. In 2022, she raised nearly $1 million in campaign contributions, more than all three of her opponents combined. Some of that money went toward a collection of TV ads championing Protasiewicz’s pro-abortion views. “I believe in a woman’s freedom to make her own decision on abortion,” she says to the camera in a January ad. On Thursday, the pro-abortion political action committee EMILYs List endorsed Protasiewicz. According to the news outlet The 19th, it marked the organization’s first endorsement of a state judicial candidate in its 38-year history.
Most pro-life groups are backing former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly for the seat. Skogman’s team at Wisconsin Right to Life has endorsed him and the other conservative candidate, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow. But the two other top pro-life groups in the state, Pro-Life Wisconsin and Wisconsin Family Action, have only thrown support behind Kelly, citing his proven track record on the Supreme Court of applying the law as it’s actually written. Kelly’s campaign is also the only one slated to receive six figures in funds from Women Speak Out PAC, a partner of the national organization Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
In an interview with WORLD, Kelly declined to state his personal position on abortion. “That’s one of the things actually that I think good jurists should not be discussing,” said Kelly. “So I don’t publicly discuss any of my personal views on political issues.” He said he didn’t commit to a particular position on any issue to the pro-life groups that backed him, but he received their endorsements because of his commitment to abide by the rule of law.
Kelly described himself as a Christian with a Biblical worldview who sees others as image-bearers of God. But he emphasized that a commitment to logic in his judicial work—working from premises found in the law to a conclusion in a case—ensures that Wisconsin law, rather than his personal opinions, guides his decision. “That also gives a benchmark against which others can check your work and make sure that you are following the law rather than personal politics,” Kelly said. “If the logical progression falters, that’s where personal values and opinions start infecting the work of the court.”
Dorow also declined to speak directly about abortion in an interview with WORLD but called herself a “strong woman of faith.” As a Christian, she said she believes “every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is fearfully and wonderfully made.” Dorow committed to put aside personal opinion to let the law guide her decisions, “whether it be on abortion or any other issue.” The process, she said, would involve seeking to understand the original intent and context of the law in question.
Both Kelly and Dorow have criticized their opponents for making a bolder commitment to incorporate their personal stances on abortion into their judicial decisions.
In a Jan. 9 forum with all four candidates, liberal candidate and Dane County Circuit Judge Everett Mitchell called the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling the worst decision he’s seen in recent years. Mitchell, also a pastor at Christ The Solid Rock Baptist Church in Madison, Wis., later told WORLD that he’s “always been a staunch supporter, even as a pastor, of reproductive justice.” He defined that as “the ability for … women to be able to have access to the healthcare that they need to make the medical decisions that are necessary for them.” Mitchell cited his own experiences working with young girls who have been raped as a reason for his views on abortion.
On top of her pro-abortion TV ads, Protasiewicz said in interviews that she embraces the label of “progressive,” specifically on the issue of “women’s rights and women’s rights to choose.” At the Jan. 9 forum, Protasiewicz spoke openly about her opposition to the Dobbs decision. “My value is that women should be able to make their reproductive rights decisions themselves,” she said, adding later, “That’s exactly why we need to bring change back to the court to not only uphold our Constitution … but to uphold the will of the people who have relied on [abortion].”
A Wisconsin man in late January filed a complaint asking the state Judicial Commission to investigate Protasiewicz over some of her comments. According to the complaint, her outright support for abortion and other matters violates the state’s judicial code, which prohibits judges or candidates for judicial offices from committing themselves in certain issues that could come before the court. Protasiewicz’s campaign did not respond to WORLD’s request for an interview.
The strong pro-abortion language from Protasiewicz and Mitchell has pro-life groups worried. A lawsuit against the 1849 law is already underway in a Wisconsin county court, though it’s moving slowly through procedural motions. A new liberal majority on the state Supreme Court could do more to encroach on freedoms for the unborn than simply block enforcement of current pro-life laws..
Pro-Life Wisconsin’s legislative director, Matt Sande, remembers reading the Kansas Supreme Court decision in 2019 that declared the state constitution guaranteed a right to abortion. The year before, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a similar opinion. Those two rulings served as a wakeup call: The same thing could happen in Wisconsin.
“And that would not only topple our current-law abortion ban but any other pro-life laws that we have on the books—regulations would topple, and then we’d have to scramble to amend our state constitution,” Sande said. “So lives are literally at stake with this race.”