Wisconsin’s spring elections historically have been sleepy affairs, with usually non-partisan races involving judges, mayors and school board members. Even state supreme court races haven’t been all that contentious until recently; indeed, the 2017 spring elections saw State Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler run unopposed for a 10-year term.
No longer. This year’s spring elections on April 4 had the feel of a fully partisan brawl, and the top of the ticket headlined Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz cruising past former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly by about 11 percentage points. The more than 36% voting-age turnout was the highest-ever for a Wisconsin spring election not coinciding with a presidential primary. And the more than $45 million spent on the supreme court race shattered the national record for the most expensive state supreme court campaign – about $15 million was spent in 2004 on an Illinois Supreme Court election.
Both new records reflected the potential impact of a race that would decide the state court’s ideological majority. With conservative Justice Patience Roggensack’s retirement creating the judicial opening, Judge Protasiewicz’s election could mean the court could eventually take up challenges to state abortion law, legislative and congressional districts, or perhaps the current cap on noneconomic damages in medical liability cases. Those cases would need to be heard by the state’s highest court after August 1, 2023, when then-Justice Protasiewicz will begin her 10-year term.
State Senate Race Also Has Significance – But Truly How Much?
One outcome on the April 4 undercard also raises significant questions about how the state legislature will function for the remainder of the 2023-24 biennium. Republican Dan Knodl defeated Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin in a special election to fill Wisconsin’s 8th Senate District seat. That district encompasses much of Milwaukee’s northern suburbs and had been vacated by longtime Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). Considered a “safe” GOP seat following redistricting, Knodl won by a little more than 1,200 votes on an 50.9% - 49.1% margin. Knodl will now vacate his current seat in the State Assembly to assume the role in the senate.
The win gives Republicans a 22-11 margin in the upper house, which is enough to override a Governor’s veto. (It takes a 2/3 vote in both legislative houses to override a veto, and while the Assembly GOP margin is a similarly gaudy 63-35 advantage, it is not enough to power a partisan veto override vote.) Besides the newly-attained veto margin, much attention has been given recently to the state legislature’s impeachment powers. Similar to the process in Congress, the State Assembly can initiate the removal of “civil officers” (an undefined term) by a majority vote, after which the State Senate can hold a trial and convict a civil officer by a 2/3 vote.
This impeachment power may be moot, however. While Rep. Knodl stated during the campaign that he “would consider” using the power to potentially convict Justice Protasiewicz, on April 5 Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) told a Milwaukee television reporter that the senate has no plans to “use impeachments to overturn elections or anything like that.”
While impeachments appear unlikely and vetoes too difficult to accomplish, the state legislature will certainly rewrite most if not all of Governor Tony Evers’ proposed 2023-25 state biennial budget over the next few months – it will be interesting to see how Gov. Evers uses his powerful veto pen on a budget document reaching his desk. And now that the spring elections are complete, most Capitol observers expect a flurry of legislative bill introductions. It remains to be seen if Gov. Evers will surpass a record he set during the 2021-22 legislative biennium: vetoing 126 bills.
Contact Wisconsin Medical Society Chief Policy & Advocacy Officer Mark Grapentine, JD with any questions.
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