In a race that is breaking down along partisan lines, current state Supreme Court justice Daniel Kelly is seeking election to a full 10-year term in April, facing challenger and Dane County circuit court judge Jill Karofsky.
The race is technically nonpartisan, but for many years that has been the case in name only. This time around, Republicans are generally supporting Kelly, Democrats are generally supporting Karofsky. Conservatives have a 5-2 margin on the court, which would shrink to 4-3 with a Karofsky victory.
Kelly's judicial philosophy is decidedly conservative in opposing judicial activism. According to Kelly, civilization depends on ordered liberty, functional economics, and individual rights, and the rule of law is an indispensable foundation for those rights.
But while Kelly believes the judiciary is uniquely positioned to protect and nurture the rule of law, as he writes on his website, individual rights and ordered liberty won't matter unless those entrusted with care for the rule of law are willing to consistently apply its first principles, even when those principles conflict with their personal policy preferences.
"There is no end to the mischief the judiciary causes when it abandons its role of declaring what the law is, and instead arrogates to itself the power to develop new law in place of what it received from the ultimate lawgivers - the people of the state of Wisconsin and the United States," he writes on his website. "It is my desire to serve the people of this state by applying, protecting, and preserving the rule of law in the Wisconsin Supreme Court."
For her part, Karofsky says she's running to help get the state and country back on the right track. These days, she says, the courts have become too politicized.
"I'm a judge, I've been a local and state prosecutor, I directed the state's Office of Crime Victim Services," she says. "No one knows better than me how important it is to have a legal system that works. Today, too many judges see themselves as on one political team or another. But I think we need strong leaders who will put our strong Wisconsin political tradition of independent and honest courts first."
Karofsky says she knows that the judicial system is built on independent judges, not a system in which it matters what political team you're on.
"So now I see the corroding effect of big money on our judicial system," she said. "It's time to restore a sense of justice and honor to our legal system. I will follow the law, and I will protect our values."
Karofsky says we are now in a time in which political forces are seeking to roll back the advances made in civil rights over the last few generations.
"More than anything, our courts are about constitutional rights," she says on her website. "We will serve the needs of crime victims, we will stand up for racial justice and civil rights, we will protect the right to marriage equality, and we will never allow for the rights of women to be rolled back."
Kelly calls his tenure on the state's high court the capstone of a vast legal career in nearly every area of legal practice.
"As a student at Regent University Law School, he was founding editor-in-chief of the law review," his biography states. "After graduation, he landed prestigious clerkships on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (Office of Special Masters)."
Kelly served as a staff attorney with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and then moved into private practice, focusing primarily on commercial litigation.
But Kelly says he also developed criminal law and trial experience by representing individuals in both misdemeanor and felony cases, and later gained valuable prosecutorial experience while serving in the Milwaukee County district attorney's office as a special prosecutor.
Among other things, he filed a brief in the Wisconsin Supreme Court defending the state's then-new school-choice program for low-income children in Milwaukee and he represented a faith-based community services group when an atheist organization challenged their right to participate in government programs.
"Kelly eventually stepped away from the day-to-day practice of law to serve as vice-president and general counsel for one of Wisconsin's largest charitable organizations.," the bio states. "There he helped facilitate philanthropic support for nonprofit organizations that make Wisconsin such a great place to live, like the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Teach for America."
Kelly has also served on the Wisconsin Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the President's Council for Carroll University.
On the other side of the ballot, Karofsky previously served as executive director of the Wisconsin Office of Crime Victim Services. She has also worked as an assistant attorney general, serving as the state's Violence Against Women resource prosecutor, and as deputy district attorney in Dane County, prosecuting felonies and misdemeanors.
She also worked as general counsel for the National Conference of Bar Examiners, and worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, teaching about victims in the criminal justice system and trial advocacy, according to her biography.
Karofsky is also an ultra-marathoner and has completed multiple Ironmans. She was born and raised in south-central Wisconsin and attended public schools. She was a state tennis champion, a Division I athlete at Duke University, and graduated with both a master's degree and law degree from UW-Madison.
Karofsky has received the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault's "Voices of Courage Award," was named the Wisconsin Victim/Witness Professional Association's "Professional of the Year," and earned a "Significant Impact" award from a local organization dedicated to ending domestic violence.
She currently serves on the Wisconsin Judicial Education Committee and chairs the Violence Against Women STOP Grant committee. She previously co-chaired the attorney general's Sexual Assault Response Team, and served on the Governor's Council on Domestic Abuse, the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board, the Wisconsin Crime Victims Council, and the Dane County Big Brothers/Big Sisters Board of Directors, her website states.
One of the most contentious issues in the race is the importance of court precedent, especially because in 2019 the court overturned a 2016 ruling about the reach of the state superintendent of public instruction's authority.
Kelly, who was not involved in the 2016 decision, said the court was not bound to rely on earlier rulings if justices believed they were wrong. But Karofsky says Kelly always sides with Republicans, and that Republicans can't always be right.
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