Conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Dan Kelly put many of the prognosticators about next year's state Supreme Court race out of business this week, at least for now, announcing his bid for a full 10-year term next spring.
Many pundits had played a guessing game about whether Kelly would run, given that next year's election will be held on the same day as the state's presidential primaries. With a bevy of Democrats running, and with President Donald Trump likely to have little opposition in the Republican primary, the liberal-backed candidate could gain a significant turnout advantage.
In addition, Kelly has not faced voters for his high court position before: Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker appointed him to the supreme court in 2016 to complete the term of the retiring justice David Prosser.
Next year's race will have less drama than had been expected because conservative appeals court judge Brian Hagedorn defeated liberal appeals court judge Lisa Neubauer this past spring to fill the seat of former chief justice Shirley Abrahamson, who also retired. Neubauer had been expected to win, which would have shaved the conservative's majority on the state supreme court to 4-3 and set up next spring's election as decisive for both sides for control of the court.
However, Hagedorn pulled an upset, giving conservatives a 5-2 majority and making it impossible for a liberal take-over of the court next year, barring an unforeseen vacancy.
In announcing his candidacy Tuesday, Kelly said he had started a conversation with the people of the state about the type of person they want on the Supreme Court.
"They told me they have two expectations of their justices," Kelly said. "First, they want them to be faithful to the constitution - the constitution as it is, not as they might wish it to be. And that means simply applying the law as we receive it from their legislators, without second-guessing the effectiveness or prudence of those laws."
And second, Kelly said, the people want their justices to remember they are the people's servants, and that the people are the justices' bosses.
"Because Wisconsinites are the best bosses a guy could want, I am announcing today that I am seeking their permission to serve 10 more years on the Supreme Court," he said. "My campaign will largely be a continuation of the conversation I started three years ago, but with one addition. I will be asking the people of Wisconsin to compare my work against what they have told me they want to see in a justice of their court."
If voters find he has been a satisfactory servant, Kelly said he would ask them to join him in spreading that conversation all across Wisconsin.
"And then, when April 7, 2020, arrives, I'll ask that they support me in the voting booth, and grant me permission to serve them for 10 more years," he said.
Fellow conservative justice Rebecca Bradley immediately endorsed Kelly and joined him at an announcement press conference in Madison.
"I have had the honor of serving on the Wisconsin Supreme Court with justice Kelly for several years and enthusiastically endorse his continued service to the people of Wisconsin," Bradley said. "Justice Kelly demonstrates a deep dedication to the rule of law and faithfully defends the constitution. Possessing an exceptional judicial temperament, justice Kelly promotes collegiality among his colleagues. Justice Kelly's work on the state's highest court is recognized for its principled adherence to saying what the law is, and not what he may wish it to be."
Justice-elect Hagedorn also backed Kelly.
"Justice Kelly embodies the kind of principled decision-making we all want on the Wisconsin Supreme Court," Hagedorn said. "He knows his job is to say what the law is, not what he thinks the law should be. Justice Kelly's commitment to the constitution and the rule of law is second only to his commitment to his faith and his family. Justice Kelly is an able leader, a faithful judge, and a good man."
Prosser also joined the bandwagon, saying Kelly had served with scholarship and distinction.
Kelly's campaign says the justice has reviewed more than 3,000 cases as a justice and authored scores of published opinions. He previously spent 20 years in private practice, and is a graduate of Carroll College (now University) and Regent University Law School.
A lot of the drama may now be lacking, but liberal opposition to Kelly's bid is expected to be fierce anyway. The liberal group One Wisconsin Now wasted no time getting into the fray.
The group's research director, Joanna Beilman-Dulin, said Kelly is "as right-wing as you get."
"Dan Kelly has served big corporate special interests, right-wing foundations, right-wing politicians and helped defend the legislative district maps Republicans rigged to help keep themselves in power," Beilman-Dulin said. "He even owes his current job to former Gov. Scott Walker, who appointed him to the bench based on his work on behalf of Wisconsin's right wing. At no point in his career has Dan Kelly shown the ability or the inclination to be anything other than an extreme right-wing partisan."
So far, Kelly has two opponents, Marquette Law School professor Edward Fallone and Dane County circuit judge Jill Karofsky.
On Twitter, Karofsky took the high road, saying there was indeed an important conversation to be had with voters.
"I welcome justice Dan Kelly to the race as he faces voters for the first time," she said. "We will have a spirited and important conversation about our experience in the law and our view of the law."
On Tuesday, Karofsky also announced her own endorsement by a sitting justice, Rebecca Dallet.
"We need judge Jill Karofsky on the Wisconsin Supreme Court," Dallet said. "Good judges stand up for the rule of law, independent courts, and our constitutional rights. In Jill's career, she has stood up for our rights every day."
As a judge, as a prosecutor, as the director of the state office for victim services, and as a community leader, Jill Karofsky has what it takes to make our system better, Dallet said.
"She's a tremendous athlete, and she's tough as nails," Dallet said. "And most importantly, Jill shares our values and will stand up for a better Wisconsin."
Fallone issued a statement saying voters want more than mere political connections.
"I believe that merit and integrity, and not political connections, are what qualify a person for a seat on our state's highest court, and I believe that the voters of Wisconsin agree with me," Fallone said in a statement to the media.
Fallone also announced an endorsement Tuesday, but from a former losing candidate and not a sitting justice: Tim Burns.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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