The candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court clashed again in another heated debate Thursday before the Milwaukee Bar Association. The race pits conservative Justice Daniel Kelly against Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky, who is supported by Democrats. The election will be held on April 7.
About 75 people gathered for the event in downtown Milwaukee. The forum featured familiar claims of corruption and partisanship on the bench. As she’s done throughout the campaign, Karofsky immediately accused incumbent Kelly of having a conservative agenda on the court. She contends he always sides with right-wing special interests.
“So, what we have right now is, we’ve got a ‘for sale’ sign basically on our state Supreme Court. Not only does Dan Kelly know who he’s received money from and who’s influencing these decisions, but they know, the outside influences, know who they’ve given money to,” Karofsky says.
Karofsky says the court needs to adopt a strong recusal rule. She criticized Kelly for initially recusing himself from a conservative law firm’s case designed to dump more than 200,000 voters from the rolls this year because they may have moved.
Then this week, Kelly said if the court doesn’t take the case until after April 7, he may reconsider his decision when it would no longer appear to be a conflict of interest if he participated. If Kelly loses, he would remain on the court until August.
Karofsky acknowledged that liberals have supported her, and promised that if elected, she would recuse herself from any cases involving the Democratic Party. She also took Kelly to task for renting office space at the Wisconsin GOP headquarters — and for the support he received in January from Republican President Donald Trump.
“This is someone who has stood up in front of Donald Trump signs, someone who has been endorsed by Donald Trump. He is signaling to Donald Trump. He might as well stand up and say, ‘I got your back, buddy. I’m going to be there for you in November. Just keep me on the court,’ ” Karofsky says.
Because of Kelly's partisan affiliations, Karofsky fears people who argue before the court will feel they won’t get a “fair shake” with him.
Then, it was Kelly’s turn to defend himself. He worked to take apart Karofsky’s arguments, starting with her criticism of his office space. Kelly notes other Supreme Court candidates have held office space at the Republican Party of Wisconsin in the past, and it’s legal to do so.
He says he considers voters to be his “bosses,” meaning they have the power to elect him or dump him from office. He says he meets them at all kinds of gatherings, not just the one where he was photographed in front of a Trump sign.
“The idea that we are supposed to avoid and that it’s my responsibility to avoid a certain group of people because they have a sign is ridiculous. The whole point of a campaign is for us to take our ideas into every corner of the state, wherever people might be gathered and whatever they might be talking about and I will continue to do that and I don’t care how many signs there might be for anybody,” Kelly says.
Kelly also defended himself against Karofsky’s accusation that he always votes in favor of right-wing special interests and called her claim “an ugly slander.” He says she’s talking about more than just him when she levels those allegations.
“So, when you say that I have acted corruptly because of the decisions that I have participated in, you are saying the rest of the court is corrupt too because it takes at least four people to make a decision,” Kelly says.
Kelly says he decides cases “according to the law and nothing else.” He was appointed to the bench in 2016 by then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The winner on April 7 will serve a 10-year term on the court.
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