Liberal Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz said Wednesday if elected she would recuse herself from any case involving the state Dem Party after it transferred $2.5 million to her campaign last week.
Conservative rival Daniel Kelly, meanwhile, declined to make a similar blanket pledge regarding the state GOP, saying he would consider it on a case-by-case basis.
Speaking with reporters after addressing the Wisconsin Counties Association in Madison, Protasiewicz said she would hear cases involving abortion even though groups such as Planned Parenthood have committed to spending seven figures to support her in the spring race. She’d also hear a possible redistricting lawsuit that would impact the Dem Party’s interests.
She told reporters she has made no promises to abortion rights groups on how she’d rule in such a case, and a redistricting suit would impact everyone in Wisconsin.
Protasiewicz called the $2.5 million transfer a significant amount of money that would raise questions with the public even if she could be impartial in a case involving the party.
“Whether or not I could continue to be fair and impartial on cases is one matter,” she said. “But on the other hand, you know, the public deserves to have really also the appearance of fairness, the appearance of impartiality, and I don’t know the public could really say, ‘Hmm, she’s fair when she’s received $2.5 million from a particular entity.'”
She added Kelly should do the same with the GOP and noted she’s called on him to do so. Kelly reported $320,987 in support from the state GOP in his 2020 bid, when he rented space at the party headquarters for his campaign. He’s reported $4,524 of in-kind support from the party in this race.
Kelly questioned whether Protasiewicz could “faithfully serve on the Supreme Court consistent with the Constitution and its values,” accusing the Milwaukee County judge of putting her “thumb on the scales of justice.”
Kelly said he was unaware if the state GOP had done anything to support his 2023 bid for the court, though “I certainly won’t turn it down.”
Kelly said judges have to decide individually whether they can hear a case, adding it would be up to Protasiewicz alone on hearing a case involving the Dem Party. He has opposed proposed rules to require recusal, while Protasiewicz has called for such an approach.
“I think that’s a matter for her and her judgment. I trust that she won’t be in the position to have to make those decisions,” Kelly said.
Kelly added he’d decline to hear any case that touched on a conversation he had with former GOP state Chair Andrew Hitt about a scheme to present a slate of false electors to Congress claiming Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2020 even though Joe Biden took the state.
There is currently a lawsuit in state court seeking damages from the false electors and attorneys who worked with them.
Hitt testified to the House Jan. 6 Committee that he had an extensive conversation with Kelly about the strategy, which backers maintained was done to keep Trump’s options open as he challenged the results.
Kelly said the conversation was protected by attorney-client privilege. He said he had a “brief conversation” with Hitt in which the then-chair asked if he was “in the loop” on the scheme. Kelly said Wednesday he was not.
When it was pointed out that Hitt testified it was an “extensive” conversation, Kelly added, “Well, it all depends on how you characterize extensive and brief, I suppose. If I recall correctly, it was about a half-hour phone call.”
Kelly has also been knocked in a new TV ad from Protasiewicz over his past work for Wisconsin Right to Life. Asked about that work Wednesday, Kelly told reporters, “Frankly, I don’t even recall.”
During their speeches to the WCA, Kelly argued voting for him would ensure the court “does not descend into a political branch of government, from which it could never recover.”
The high court is now controlled 4-3 by conservatives, though Brian Hagedorn sometimes sides with the liberals on big cases. The April 4 election will select a replacement for conservative Pat Roggensack and decide the ideological balance of the court.
Protasiewicz, meanwhile, argued the choice is between electing her to bring common sense and fairness to the court vs. electing her rival to “continue partisanship and extremist.”
Protasiewicz said Kelly worked for the “extreme group” that’s fighting to keep the state’s 1849 abortion ban in place and was “at the center” of attempts to overturn the 2020 election. She added while Kelly was a justice, he regularly took the side of special interests and followed his own partisan beliefs, not the rule of law.
“We cannot give him that opportunity again,” she said.
Kelly told county officials the choice was about whether the court remains subordinate to the will of the people or becomes a super-legislature of four lawyers in a Madison courtroom deciding what the law is without referring to the people, the Legislature or the Constitution.
“I think it should be the former, without question, because that’s the only way that we can be true to the people of Wisconsin and their Constitution,” Kelly said.