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Top 2 vote getters in Wisconsin Supreme Court primary will face off in April

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

An election tomorrow in Wisconsin will fill a seat on the state Supreme Court and likely determine whether a ban on abortions stays in place. Now, if a liberal candidate wins the seat currently held by a retiring justice, the conservative majority on the bench would come to an end. It's a race that's drawn big campaign money for both sides. Here's Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM in Milwaukee.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: If there's any doubt about the political fight over abortion rights in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, just listen to this ad from one of the four candidates, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "COMMON SENSE")

JANET PROTASIEWICZ: I believe in a woman's freedom to make her own decision on abortion. It's time for a change.

QUIRMBACH: Protasiewicz is considered one of the two liberals in the race. The other, Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell, says last summer's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed Roe v. Wade, has had the most adverse impact of any of the court decisions he's seen.

EVERETT MITCHELL: It was one of the first times that I can remember in my own history that a right was reached into the lives of people and taken away.

QUIRMBACH: The overturning of Roe means almost all abortions are banned in Wisconsin under an 1849 state law. The only exception is to protect the life of the mother. Now that ban is at the center of a legal fight. While Republican state lawmakers support it, Wisconsin's Democratic governor and attorney general have filed a lawsuit challenging the ban. The case is expected to ultimately land before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. That prospect has put a spotlight on the election with endorsements and money pouring in. The two conservative candidates say they will not comment on whether the 1849 law prohibiting abortion should stay in effect. But on a talk radio program, Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow said the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe was correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER DOROW: I think it's really important for justices to have courage and to be able to look back at prior decisions, especially for a U.S. Supreme Court, and say our prior decisions got it wrong.

QUIRMBACH: The other conservative candidate is a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. Daniel Kelly is trying to make a comeback after losing to a liberal candidate three years ago. During a forum, Kelly said if he had to consider the lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's abortion ban, he would take a narrow judicial approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL KELLY: An actual justice would look at that and say, well, the people of Wisconsin have loaned the legislative authority to the legislature.

QUIRMBACH: And the Wisconsin legislature is controlled by Republicans, who say at the most, they would only make a limited change to the state abortion ban, for example, allowing abortions if rape or incest is involved in a pregnancy. The primary election is just step one. The two top vote getters will face off in April. If, as predicted, it's one liberal and one conservative in the general election, campaign spending is expected to increase well into the millions as the battle over abortion policy in Wisconsin continues. That troubles former Wisconsin Justice Janine Geske, who now teaches at Marquette University Law School.

JANINE GESKE: We're losing the dignity and the impartiality of the court and turning it into a partisan fight. And so it's a legislative race.

QUIRMBACH: A race for the state Supreme Court that could become one of the most expensive in Wisconsin's history.

For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "FRIDAY MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chuck Quirmbach is a Milwaukee-based reporter who covers developments and issues in Southeastern Wisconsin that are of statewide interest. He has numerous years of experience covering state government, elections, the environment, energy, racial diversity issues, clergy abuse claims and major baseball stadium doings. He enjoys covering all topics.