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What lies ahead for the Wisconsin Supreme Court


An absolutely record-breaking fight for a single seat on a state supreme court is over. For the first time in 15 years, liberals will have a majority on Wisconsin's highest court come August. That is when the newly elected justice, Janet Protasiewicz, will take the bench.

Well, to break this down is Shawn Johnson, political reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio. Hey, Shawn.


M L KELLY: Hey. So lay out the stakes for those of us not in Wisconsin. What does this liberal swing on the court mean for your state?

JOHNSON: Well, I mean, you got a sense of it at the election night party for Janet Protasiewicz in Milwaukee, where the energy in the room was palpable.


JANET PROTASIEWICZ: And while there is still work to be done, tonight we celebrate this historic victory that has obviously reignited hope in so many of us.


JOHNSON: I mean, her supporters were dancing on the stage with her last night.

To just get a sense of why it's a big deal for Democrats here that liberals now have a majority on the court, I think you have to look at the last time it happened. It was - 15 years ago was the last time they had a majority in the court. George W. Bush was still president at the time. So we tend to think about Wisconsin as this swing state, where control pings back and forth between the two parties. But on the court, for 15 years, there's been a constant in Wisconsin. It's been a conservative majority, and that is no longer the case.

M L KELLY: Well, let's get into the issues because they are big ones that people tend to get fired up about - abortion, redistricting in the state. What is next on those, now that Protasiewicz is on the court...

JOHNSON: I think now there's...

M L KELLY: ...Or soon to be on the court? Yeah.

JOHNSON: Yeah. She'll take office August 1, and I think you can be sure that there is going to be a challenge to the state's 1849 ban on abortion headed to the court. That ban took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade here. So that case is already filed in a lower court right now.

When it comes to redistricting, you know, Janet Protasiewicz, during the campaign, said that the Republican-drawn legislative maps here that have helped Republicans hold big majorities in our legislature and cement a conservative majority for, you know, more than a decade - she called those maps rigged. She said she'd like the court to take another look at them. And now that she's there, she's very likely going to get that chance.

M L KELLY: How are Republicans reacting to that?

JOHNSON: Well, the initial reaction last night from former State Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, who was Protasiewicz's opponent, was raw, to put it mildly. It was very critical of Protasiewicz, especially for a concession speech.


DAN KELLY: This was the most deeply deceitful, dishonorable, despicable campaign I have ever seen run for the courts.

JOHNSON: At the same time, Republicans did score a significant victory yesterday - a special election in the state Senate that gave them a two-thirds majority in the Senate. And that could let them impeach and convict civil officers of the state - positions like governors, attorneys general and judges.

M L KELLY: And briefly, Shawn, what do we know about who turned out to vote?

JOHNSON: Well, we know that we broke turnout records here, with about 1.8 million people turning out to vote. That topped the old record of 1.5 million. When I talked to Marquette University pollster Charles Franklin, he said it was also a noteworthy day in terms of the size of the Protasiewicz victory, which was about 11 percentage points.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: It's a substantial win in terms of percentages. It's an astonishing win in terms of turnout.

JOHNSON: And you saw, with that turnout, the Democratic counties growing their share of the vote...

M L KELLY: Right.

JOHNSON: ...And you also saw Republican votes in the suburbs of Milwaukee sliding slowly to the left.

M L KELLY: All right. Thank you, Shawn - Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.