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Voters in Wisconsin have flipped control of the state Supreme Court to liberals

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Voters in Wisconsin have flipped control of the state Supreme Court. Liberals have an advantage for the first time in 15 years after an election yesterday. Now, in theory, this court is nonpartisan, but in practice, a conservative majority has given rulings for years, accompanied by opinions that sometimes read like Fox News commentaries. This time around, a progressive challenger, Judge Janet Protasiewicz, was open about pushing the court in a new direction.

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JANET PROTASIEWICZ: Wisconsin voters have made their voices heard. They've chosen to reject partisan extremism in this state.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: She openly supported abortion rights and openly opposed election maps drawn by Republicans. She gives progressives a majority of the seven justices, just in time to rule on those issues. Chuck Quirmbach of WUWM is in Milwaukee.

Chuck, good morning.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Who is she?

QUIRMBACH: Well, Janet Protasiewicz - Milwaukee born and raised, 25 years as an assistant district attorney, 10 years as a Milwaukee County judge. She's not been a high-profile jurist here, but she got into the race, you know, with that strong message supporting reproductive rights that maybe, apparently, appears to have helped her win. Now she is high profile, in an unusual scene for Wisconsin, anyway. The three current liberal state justices joined Protasiewicz on stage at her victory party, you know, the new incoming - the incoming new majority, so to speak.

INSKEEP: Yeah. In an ideologically divided state, the seven-member Supreme Court becomes more like a legislature, and the legislative majority at the moment is on the liberal side, 4 to 3. How are Republicans and conservatives responding to this?

QUIRMBACH: Well, maybe opponent Dan Kelly, Protasiewicz's opponent - Dan Kelly summed up feelings last night. He did not mince words. He went after Protasiewicz, saying she, quote, "demeaned the judiciary."

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DAN KELLY: I wish that in a circumstance like this, I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent, but I do not have a worthy opponent to which I can concede.

INSKEEP: Wow.

QUIRMBACH: Yeah. To explain, Kelly has been complaining throughout the race that Protasiewicz should not be giving her personal views on matters like abortion and legislative redistricting, that it's wrong for a jurist to do so. The sharp tone of his comments last night continued sort of the tone he had taken towards her during their only debate a couple of weeks ago and, you know, what I heard him say at a campaign rally Sunday that was, by the way, at a Milwaukee-area Republican campaign headquarters.

INSKEEP: Which shows the partisan leaning on that side, I suppose. We should note that judges races are not often that widely followed, but this one was. We reported earlier this week on MORNING EDITION about tens of millions of dollars spent, some of it from out of state. Did this affect the outcome in any way?

QUIRMBACH: Well, it certainly helped keep the contest on voters' minds and, you know, reach out to the hundreds of thousands here who usually skip spring elections, though they vote in presidential races. I mean, you couldn't escape the ads. But, you know, I talked to voters in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield yesterday afternoon, traditionally a very conservative area, and Kelly still won it. But I heard a number of women say they voted for reproductive rights, including women who said they have previously been independents. Those lost votes for Kelly cut into his strength in the suburbs. Protasiewicz won big in Madison and in Milwaukee County, carried enough other counties to win Wisconsin by about 10%.

INSKEEP: And of course, she's joining a court that may rule on reproductive rights, as well as on redistricting, where Republicans have given themselves a huge advantage in the Legislature in Wisconsin. Chuck, thanks so much.

QUIRMBACH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Chuck Quirmbach of WUWM in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August, 2018, as Innovation Reporter, covering developments in science, health and business.