Feb 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Why a Wisconsin court seat means so much for 2024

Illustration of a chess piece with a gavel top

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The election with the highest stakes this spring could be a runoff for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat that could decide the state's future on abortion and voting rights — and any challenges there to the 2024 presidential election.

Why it matters: Democrats are fighting to regain control of the seven-member court more than two years after a single conservative justice prevented the panel from helping former President Trump and his allies overturn his loss in the crucial battleground state.

Driving the news: Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly emerged from Tuesday's four-way primary and will compete in the state's general election on April 4.

  • The election is technically nonpartisan, but Protasiewicz is backed by Democrats and abortion-rights groups such as Emily's List, while Kelly — who has ties to Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election results in Wisconsin — is backed by Trump and Republicans.
  • The winner of the election gets a 10-year term.

Zoom in: If Protasiewicz helps Democrats seize control of the court for the first time in 15 years, the court could overturn Wisconsin's pre-Civil War abortion ban and revisit the 2022 congressional maps that heavily favored Republicans.

The big picture: State Supreme Courts and their elections have been under increasing scrutiny from both parties — particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June. That decision took away 50 years of federal protection for abortion rights and left it to states to decide how to regulate the practice.

  • Abortion: Wisconsin's high court is likely to consider the legality of a 19th-century anti-abortion law that now could be enforced.
  • Voting: The state court previously ruled in favor of a law that bans voters from using someone else to mail their absentee ballot or to hand it to an elections clerk. Voters with disabilities have said this makes it impossible for many of them to vote.
  • Redistricting: Last year Wisconsin's Supreme Court accepted a redistricting plan from GOP state lawmakers that tilted the legislature heavily in Republicans' favor.

Zoom out: State Supreme Courts in places such as North Carolina, Ohio and Kentucky already have ruled in ways that could impact the next presidential election.

  • North Carolina heard oral arguments for a case that would give its state legislature power over the rules and regulations of federal elections — without any oversight from state courts.
  • An Ohio law that bans nearly all abortions was blocked by a lower-court judge last year after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling. Now, Republican Attorney General Dave Yost is asking state Supreme Court justices to reverse the lower court's decision.
  • Kentucky's Supreme Court twice has refused to block the state's trigger law, which took effect shortly after Roe was reversed. The law makes abortions illegal in the state unless necessary to save a pregnant person's life.
  • The Kentucky court also has declined to block a "six-week ban" that denies abortion care as soon as an embryo's heartbeat is detected.
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