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Progressive Judge Wins Wisconsin Supreme Court Seat “In the Most Important Election of 2023”

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Democrat-backed Judge Janet Protasiewicz won a high-stakes Wisconsin Supreme Court race Tuesday, giving liberals a majority on the court for the first time since 2008 and renewing hopes the state’s abortion ban can be reversed. Protasiewicz’s rival, former Justice Dan Kelly, had support from Republicans and anti-abortion groups. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is also likely to weigh in on gerrymandering and voting access, with the potential to impact national elections for Congress and president. We get an update from John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation, who joins us from Madison, Wisconsin.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

While Donald Trump’s arraignment and arrest dominated headlines Tuesday, two significant elections took place, in Chicago and Wisconsin. We’ll look at both, beginning in Wisconsin, where Judge Janet Protasiewicz has won a special election over Dan Kelly for a seat on the state Supreme Court, giving progressives control of the court for the first time in 15 years. With her election, the court is now expected to restore abortion rights in Wisconsin. Janet Protasiewicz spoke to supporters Tuesday night.

JUSTICE-ELECT JANET PROTASIEWICZ: Today’s results mean two very important and special things. First, it means that Wisconsin voters have made their voices heard. They’ve chosen to reject partisan extremism in this state. And second, it means our democracy will always prevail. Too many have tried to overturn the will of the people. Today’s results show that Wisconsinites believe in democracy and the democratic process.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us from Wisconsin right now, from Madison, John Nichols, The Nation’s national affairs correspondent. His new piece is headlined “Wisconsin Chooses a Progressive Justice in the Most Important Election of 2023.”

I assume you were up very late writing this, John. Judge Janet Protasiewicz, we have to keep on practicing that. It is not an easy name to say, but it’s one that could determine how the 2024 national elections turn out. Explain the significance of this race.

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s hard to overestimate the significance of the race, Amy. And thanks for having me on. Look, the Wisconsin Supreme Court was really the bulwark of conservative political and legislative action in the state for more than a decade, going back to the days of Scott Walker. It was the Wisconsin Supreme Court that put a stamp of approval on Walker’s assaults on labor unions, on Walker’s assaults on voting rights and a host of other issues, and including on that list the gerrymandering of Wisconsin’s legislative and congressional district maps.

So, right there, having a new liberal majority on the court opens up the possibility that the maps for legislative districts and congressional districts will be redrawn. That redraw, if it comes quickly enough, could open up as many as two congressional seats for competitive elections that are not now possible. That, in turn, means the Democrats could pick up two House seats in Wisconsin. If you think about how narrowly the U.S. House of Representatives is currently divided, that’s a very significant development right there.

But the other thing that’s very significant as regards the 2024 election is that the Wisconsin Supreme Court, to a greater extent than almost any court in the country, has entertained many of the Republican efforts to assault voting rights, suppress votes, alter ways in which elections are managed and handled. This court came within a vote of really opening the door for many of Trump’s challenges to the 2020 election results. And the conservative candidate in this race, Dan Kelly, was a lawyer for the Republican Party who actually engaged in and was part of those discussions about developing a slate of fake electors, which would have sought to overturn the election. If he had won a place on this court, in 2024, if Donald Trump was the presidential candidate of the Republican Party, if he was challenging results, he would have had a court in Wisconsin that was particularly sympathetic to him. Now he has a court, as Janet Protasiewicz said, that is determined to uphold the rule of law and to defend democracy. So, that, in itself, not just for Wisconsin but for the whole country, is a huge shift.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John, could you talk about how this victory became possible, given the fact that judicial elections are normally not high-profile events that most voters pay attention to?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes. That is a very good question, Juan. Look, in Wisconsin, judicial elections have become high-profile events in recent years, going back to 2018, when Judge Rebecca — Justice Rebecca Dallet won a critical race for the Supreme Court, and in 2020, when Justice Jill Karofsky defeated Dan Kelly, the conservative running this year, in a Supreme Court race. And so, these races have become more and more significant in Wisconsin.

This one, because it was a balance-tipping race, became a big deal. People recognized that a seat became open. That’s when a former justice — or, current justice decided not to run for reelection. That was a conservative justice. This open seat, it became clear, was going to determine whether this was going to be a conservative court or a liberal court, going forward not just for the next few years, but potentially into the 2030s, because these are 10-year terms on the court. So, a lot of progressives in Wisconsin began to focus very, very closely on this race. They made a big deal about it. They talked about it early. They organized a great deal. You saw labor groups, civil rights groups, community groups, all sorts of folks, you know, who really got engaged with this, not this year, but they started last year.

And the fact of the matter was, the race did become nationalized. You saw huge amounts of conservative money coming in from billionaire donors. And at the end of the day, it was — it looks like there’s going to be about $45 million to $50 million spent on this race, the most expensive Supreme Court race in the history of the United States. So, all of that made it incredibly high-profile, to the point where you saw kind of breakthroughs in turnout, much higher turnout in a lot of the state than in previous races by far.

AMY GOODMAN: John, we have — 

JOHN NICHOLS: And also a lot of — 

AMY GOODMAN: We have another two cities to go to in today’s show, because so much is happening, from Chicago to Nashville. Nashville is about guns. Abortion, I think, is one of the key issues in this race. The abortion law in effect now, the abortion ban, was passed in 1849, an abortion ban in Wisconsin. Would you say this is a bellwether overturning, I mean, putting in a progressive majority, on what this could mean for the country?

JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely, on the issue of reproductive rights. And Janet Protasiewicz, as a candidate, said from the start that she would speak about her values. And one of her values was that she believed that the right to choose was settled law and that women have a right to make choices as regards their own bodies. She was very blunt about that. Her opponent, Dan Kelly, was backed by militant anti-abortion groups. And so it was an incredibly clear choice.

And in a battleground state, one of the most contested states in the country, you now have a potential that a liberal Supreme Court may overturn that 1849 law, a law passed just one year after Wisconsin became a state. If it does, this could be one of the real breakthroughs as regards the debate over reproductive rights, but also for this understanding that this issue of a woman’s right to choose is an incredibly potent political issue. There is simply no question that it resonated in the race in Wisconsin. And it was one of the factors that drew a tremendous number of young voters, especially students on campuses, to the polls, and they played a very critical role in this contest, both in the primary and the general election.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, John, for being with us. John Nichols, The Nation's national affairs correspondent, speaking to us from Madison, Wisconsin. We'll link to your piece, “Wisconsin Chooses a Progressive Justice in the Most Important Election of [the Year].”

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