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Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz says she’d recuse herself in cases involving state Democratic Party

Democratic Party of Wisconsin has been a top donor to Protasiewicz's campaign

A headshot photo of Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz. Photo courtesy of Janet Protasiewicz’ campaign

The liberal candidate for Wisconsin’s pivotal Supreme Court race said Wednesday she would likely recuse herself in any cases involving the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, one of her top campaign donors.

But Judge Janet Protasiewicz said she would not recuse herself from cases involving other parties that advocate for Democrats, and she’d still hear cases involving abortion or redistricting, two issues she’s discussed frequently during her campaign.

Since emerging from the February Supreme Court primary along with former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, the candidate backed by conservatives, Protasiewicz has dominated the TV ad wars. She’s been aided by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, which transferred $2.5 million to her campaign.

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Asked Wednesday whether she could hear a case involving the party, Protasiewicz said it would be “doubtful.”

“I would likely recuse myself from any case involving the Democratic Party of the state of Wisconsin,” Protasiewicz said.

Protasiewicz has supported the idea of setting a recusal standard for justices, where they don’t hear cases involving bigger donors. While she hasn’t given a dollar amount for where that standard should be, she indicated the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s contribution would cross that threshold.

“I think that $2.5 million is obviously a significant amount of money,” Protasiewicz said. “I don’t know that the public could really say she’s fair when she’s received $2.5 million dollars from a particular entity.”

Protasiewicz made her remarks at a gathering of the Wisconsin Counties Association, where she was one of the featured speakers. Kelly, who spoke at the same event about an hour later, told reporters that the decision for when to recuse was up to Protasiewicz.

“I think that’s a matter that is up to her and her judgment,” Kelly said.

Kelly declined to say whether he would recuse himself in cases involving GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, whose pro-Kelly group Fair Courts America has spent millions on the former justice’s campaign.

“I will consider those matters individually as I had before, as is appropriate for a justice of the court,” Kelly said.

Kelly also declined to say whether he would recuse himself in cases involving the Republican Party of Wisconsin, which supported his unsuccessful campaign for the court in 2020.

“I will look at that issue very closely in any case that would potentially implicate the Republican Party or anyone else who makes contributions,” Kelly said.

Protasiewicz would hear cases involving abortion, redistricting

Protasiewicz said she would hear cases involving Planned Parenthood, the abortion rights group that pledged to spend more than $1 million to support her bid for the court.

“I have made no promises in regard to that,” Protasiewicz said.

Protasiewicz has made frequent references to her “values” when it comes to abortion, and she did again Wednesday.

“And the reason that I have been so clear about what my values are is that I believe the voters deserve to know what the candidate seeking office believes,” Protasiewicz told the crowd at the Wisconsin Counties Association. “I also value a woman’s freedom to make her own health care decisions with her doctor, family and faith.”

Protasiewicz said she would not step aside in cases involving abortion, telling reporters that she had never promised to rule one way or another.

“Every single time I talk about what my personal values are, I make sure everybody understands that I will only be making decisions based on what the law is and based on what the Constitution is,” Protasiewicz said.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is all but certain to eventually hear a lawsuit by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul challenging Wisconsin’s pre-Civil War abortion ban.

Depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court race, the court could also hear a new lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn redistricting map. A Democratic group would almost certainly intervene in that case, but Protasiewicz said that would not stop her from hearing it.

“I do not anticipate that I would recuse myself on any case regarding redistricting,” Protasiewicz said.

Kelly downplays legal work for anti-abortion group, Republican electors

One of Protasiewicz’s first ads after the primary attacked Kelly for working for the anti-abortion group Wisconsin Right to Life. Asked Wednesday about the nature of that work, Kelly had little to say.

“Frankly, I don’t even recall it,” Kelly said.

Kelly also downplayed the work he did for the Republican Party of Wisconsin as a private attorney in December 2020, when the GOP was organizing a slate of fake electors. He said he spoke with former state GOP chair Andrew Hitt about the electors during a half-hour phone call.

Kelly also declined to weigh in when asked whether it was a wise decision for Republicans to have false electors meet at the state Capitol.

“Not for me to decide,” Kelly said.

Kelly said that if a civil lawsuit involving the false electors made its way to the state Supreme Court, he would consider stepping aside.

“If it implicated the conversation that I had with Andrew, I would certainly recuse,” Kelly said.

The back-and-forth between Protasiewicz and Kelly comes as millions of dollars are flowing to Wisconsin for a race that will decide the ideological balance of the court. According to the firm AdImpact Politics, which tracks TV ad spending, more than $17 million had been spent on the contest between the primary and the general election, which would break the previous national record for a state supreme court race.