In heated Wisconsin Supreme Court debate, candidates tangle over 'fake elector' scheme

MADISON, Wis. — In the only debate of the closely watched race that will determine ideological control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz hammered her conservative opponent, Daniel Kelly, as a "true threat to democracy" over his ties to a scheme to overturn the 2020 election.

“I am running against probably one of the most extreme partisan characters in the history of the state,” Protasiewicz said during their debate Tuesday.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court race is of deep importance to both liberals and conservatives. A win by Kelly would retain conservative control of the court, while a win by Protasiewicz would result in a liberal majority — which has not been in place for 15 years — and could determine the fate of issues like abortion rights in the state.

In one of several attacks the candidates lobbed at each other in the one-hour debate, Protasiewicz criticized Kelly for having advised Republicans on legal efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential race through the use of “fake electors."

“The real cherry on the top is that fake electors scheme,” said Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County circuit judge.

In a deposition to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, former Wisconsin GOP chairman Andrew Hitt said he and Kelly had “pretty extensive conversations” about the plan, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month that the Republican Party at the state and national levels had paid Kelly $120,000 to advise them on “election integrity” issues.

Kelly hit back against the accusations Tuesday by saying Protasiewicz was “lying,” and he denied any involvement in the matter. He said Hitt had held “extensive conversations with his attorneys — plural,” not just him.

“His testimony was also that he had one conversation with me, 30 minutes, in which he asked if I was in the loop on the alternate electors slate. I told him I wasn’t, because I wasn’t, and that was the end of the matter,” said Kelly, a former state Supreme Court justice who lost his seat in a 2020 election to liberal Jill Karofsky.

Kelly attacked Protasiewicz over how prominently she had broadcast how she would side in high-profile cases that might come before the court — including cases about abortion rights, elections and gerrymandered maps.

“This is the problem that you have when you have a candidate who does nothing but talk about her personal politics," Kelly said. "She’s already told each and every one of you how she will approach this.”

He also accused Protasiewicz — who, along with outside groups supporting her, including the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, has massively outspent Kelly and outside groups supporting him — of “being bought and paid for by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.”

Both candidates spent most of their time simply relitigating accusations they’d made in their campaign ads. The contest has already become the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history.

“This seems to be a pattern for you, Janet,” Kelly said, “just telling lies about me.” He was referring to ads Protasiewicz’s campaign has run on TV in the state calling Kelly “corrupt” and “an extremist who doesn’t care about us.”

Protasiewicz accused Kelly and his supporters of misrepresenting her judicial record.

Ads run by outside groups supporting Kelly have accused Protasiewicz of “[setting] violent criminals free again and again.”

“I have sentenced thousands of people, and it’s interesting that a handful of cases have been cherry-picked and selected and twisted,” Protasiewicz said.

Mentioned sparingly, however, was the topic of abortion rights — an issue whose future is deeply tied to the outcome of the April 4 election.

The state Supreme Court is widely expected to decide the fate of the state’s restrictive 1849 abortion law in the near term.

The issue, however, came up just once at the debate, when each candidate was asked about getting support from pro- and anti-abortion groups. Protasiewicz has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, a Democratic group that supports female candidates who favor abortion rights.

Kelly, who has refrained from saying how he would rule in such a case, was endorsed by three groups that oppose abortion rights and provided counsel to another Wisconsin group that opposes abortion rights.

“I can tell you that if my opponent is elected — I can tell you with 100% certainty — that the 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books,” Protasiewicz said when she was asked about the groups that have endorsed her.

“You don’t know what I’m thinking about that abortion ban — you have no idea,” Kelly shot back later.

“The endorsements that I received are entirely because of conversations that I had with individuals and organizations, in which they asked me, ‘What kind of a justice will you be?’ And I explained to them at length about the role of a jurist instead of talking about politics, which is all you do,” he added.

Wisconsin voters will head to the polls in two weeks to elect a new justice, and control of the court is at stake. Both candidates are running to replace Justice Patience Roggensack, a member of the court’s 4-3 conservative majority. Early voting in the race — the winner of which is elected to a 10-year term — kicked off Tuesday, and former President Barack Obama tweeted about the race in a sign of its importance to Democrats.

The debate, which was held at the offices of the State Bar of Wisconsin, was co-sponsored by several local media outlets. It was the first and only time the candidates have met face to face since the February primary that narrowed the nonpartisan field of candidates from four to two.

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