Judicial elections, democratic appointment (e.g., senate confirmation), and the Missouri Plan (a/k/a "merit selection")

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Wisconsin’s Coronavirus Election Focused on its Hotly Contested State Supreme Court

Wisconsin’s election last week grabbed national headlines due to partisan battles over opening polling places during a pandemic, but followers of Wisconsin politics suggest the crucial partisan divide was over the state Supreme Court. “[T]he battle over the court is the reason that the GOP defied pleas to postpone the vote: Republicans calculated that holding the election in the midst of the pandemic gave incumbent conservative justice Dan Kelly a better chance of holding his seat,” according to veteran commentator Charles Sykes writing in Politico.

The winner of last week’s election, however, was liberal challenger Judge Jill Karofsky who beat incumbent Kelly by 10%, thus reducing conservatives’ edge on the court from 5-2 to 4-3.

Although Wisconsin Supreme Court elections are nominally non-partisan, the usual Red and Blue teams routinely dominate. As Sykes puts it, “While the election of judges is technically nonpartisan, over the past two decades all pretenses have been dropped, as the races have become high-stakes proxy battles between Democrats and Republicans. Spending on the current campaign between Kelly and progressive challenger Jill Karnofsky topped $8 million and, following the pattern of recent elections, the contest was both intensely ideological and personally bitter.” And: “During the campaign, Karnofsky, who is running as an advocate of ‘social justice,’ accused Kelly of ‘running his Supreme Court campaign out of the Wisconsin GOP headquarters,” and noted that he was touting the support of President Donald Trump.”

Other than coronavirus, this Supreme Court race “in most other respects resemble[d] those before it: intensely partisan, even though its nominally nonpartisan; awash in campaign spending; and high-stakes for the ideological balance of the court,” observed Riley Vetterkind in the Wisconsin State Journal. These elections first turned boisterous in 1999, where the court saw its first million dollar election battle, and Marquette University Professor Paul Nolette considers this transformation “a reflection in part of the polarization in Wisconsin in general.”

Battles over the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and within the court, have been raging for years. Formerly, the role of chief justice fell to the court’s most senior member, but a 2015 constitutional amendment changed this selection process to election by the other justices. Democrats derided that amendment as a veiled attempt to unseat then incumbent liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, but it nonetheless passed the legislature and a statewide ballot. I observed in a previous post that tensions heightened even further as Chief Justice Abrahamson subsequently sued the other six members of her court after losing reelection as chief under the new rules.

Thanks to Arrian Ebrahimi for research assistance.