Justice-elect Jill Karofsky declares victory Monday evening outside her home with friends maintaining a social distance. The Dane County judge won a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court by unseating conservative incumbent Justice Dan Kelly.
Justice-elect Jill Karofsky declares victory Monday evening outside her home with friends maintaining a social distance. The Dane County judge won a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court by unseating conservative incumbent Justice Dan Kelly.

Wisconsin’s poor reputation for avoiding conflicts of interest between judges and donors needs repair, but conservatives will still hold the court, 4-3

Wisconsin’s next Supreme Court justice wants her race against incumbent Dan Kelly to be one of the last where a central topic centers on justices who don’t recuse themselves from cases involving their own campaign donors.

“We have one of the weakest recusal rules in the country, and we have to change that,” Karofsky said in an interview with UpNorthNews on Wednesday. 

She says she hopes to sit down with her fellow justices, four conservatives and two other progressives, to work out a new, clear recusal rule, “so that when a substantial amount of money is infused in one of these campaigns that a justice will not benefit from that. They can take the money but then they would have to recuse themselves from any case that involved that organization or that person. We have got to stop the inflow of special interest money into judicial campaigns.”

Watch the UpNorthNews interview with Justice-elect Jill Karofsky

Unlike other elections where the candidates learn results shortly after the polls close, Karofsky and Kelly spent six days waiting for the ballots to be counted, the result of lawsuits challenging the holding of an election during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Karofsky, a Dane County judge, said she spent the time working, running and spending time with her family. Despite the victory and her wide margin over Kelly, Karofsky is adamant the April 7 election was poorly handled by the Republican-led Legislature and the conservative-led state Supreme Court and conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court.

“This election never should have happened. We never, ever should have put people in a position where they had to choose between their own safety and casting a ballot.”

She said she and her team heard from “people were absolutely despondent. They didn’t feel safe going to the polls, but they wanted their voice to be heard in this election.”

“There was an overt attempt in this election to suppress the vote.”

All seven of the current justices voted by absentee ballot before their April 6 deliberation over whether to invalidate an executive order by Gov. Tony Evers to delay in-person voting and send absentee ballots to every registered voter. Four of the court’s conservatives said the order was unconstitutional and ruled that in-person voting would go on as scheduled the following day. The two progressives were in the minority, and Justice Kelly abstained since he was on the ballot.

“People understood that when they saw what happened the Monday before the election when they saw the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court say ‘we’re not going to put people first.  We’re going to put special interests first. We’re going to force this election, and you need to risk your safety if you want to go vote at the polls tomorrow.’”

Karofsky said she was grateful to the two prior women who ran for the state’s high court as progressives, Justice Rebecca Dallet, who won in 2018,  and Judge Lisa Neubauer who lost in 2019 to Brian Hagedorn.

“They were incredibly helpful to me, incredibly supportive.”

Karofsky will be sworn in as justice on August 1.