Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Now Has a Liberal Majority. But What Will That Mean For You?

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Now Has a Liberal Majority. But What Will That Mean For You?

(Photo via Fiona Hatch)

By Fiona Hatch

August 8, 2023

There are three key cases that could soon be decided by the new, liberal-controlled state Supreme Court, with fallout that could have significant consequences for Wisconsinites.  

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been narrowly split between conservative and liberal Justices for several years, but has had a conservative majority for the past 15 years. 

That’s just changed, though. After 20 years on the court, conservative Justice Patience Drake Roggensack retired at the end of July. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz replaced Roggensack on the bench on Aug. 1, creating a 4-3 liberal majority on the court. 

In recent years, a significant portion of the court’s cases have been decided by slim majorities split along ideological lines. Justice Brian Hagedorn has been known as the occasional swing voter of the four conservatives on the bench, but now the liberal Justices make the majority on their own. This shift could have profound impacts on the lives of ordinary Wisconsinites. 

Three of Wisconsin’s Most Important Cases

Two controversial cases were recently decided by one vote under the old, conservative-controlled court, but the outcome of those cases could soon be reversed under the new court. And a third key case could decide the future of women’s healthcare in Wisconsin. Here’s what you need to know: 

The Legality of Absentee Drop Boxes 

  • Last July, the court ruled that absentee ballot drop boxes are no longer allowed in Wisconsin. It was also stipulated that a voter cannot have somebody else return their completed absentee ballot in person. 
  • The decision was split along ideological lines. 
  • “An inanimate object, such as a ballot drop box, cannot be the municipal clerk,” said conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley.
  • “[The court] has seemingly taken the opportunity to make it harder to vote or to inject confusion into the process whenever it has been presented with the opportunity,” liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote in her dissent. 
  • State Democrats recently filed a lawsuit over absentee ballot boxes ahead of the court’s majority flip. The new court could, in theory, throw out the prior court’s ruling and legalize drop boxes once again.
  • Impact on you: For now, if you plan to vote absentee in any upcoming elections, you will need to return your completed ballot in person to your local clerk’s office or by mail. 

Wisconsin’s Gerrymandered District Maps

  • In 2022, the court approved the legislative redistricting map drawn by Republican state lawmakers after the US Supreme Court struck down the new map proposed by Gov. Tony Evers. That map has been criticized for gerrymandering voters in such a way as to help Republicans win a disproportionate share of state legislative seats. 
  • The location of district lines decide which voters vote for which representative.  Changing the lines will change the relevant voters, and can change the identity, allegiance, and political priorities of a district’s representative, and of the legislative delegation as a whole,” according to Loyola Law School. A change in Wisconsin’s maps could have a domino effect on the state’s politics.
  • Within days of Justice Protasiewicz taking her seat on the bench, two lawsuits were filed before the court challenging Wisconsin’s district maps for the state Assembly and state Senate. The lawsuits allege Wisconsin’s current legislative maps are gerrymandered and violate the state’s Constitution and therefore must be replaced before the 2024 elections. 
  • Impact on you: If the court overturns the state’s gerrymandered maps, Republicans’ near-supermajorities in the state House and Senate could be overturned too, effectively forcing them to negotiate with Gov. Tony Evers and creating a more representative government for voters. 

Wisconsin’s 1849 Abortion Ban

  • After the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, the status of reproductive rights in Wisconsin was left up in the air. The Court’s ruling triggered an 1849 state law that anti-abortion advocates claim prohibits abortion unless the life of the mother is in danger. 
  • Efforts to strike down the law began last year. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul and Governor Tony Evers jointly filed a lawsuit in June 2022 to revoke the ban, arguing that laws governing abortion passed over more recent years supercede the 174-year old ban, which Kaul claims also applies only to infanticide and not abortion.
  • The lawsuit is currently in a circuit court, but is expected to make its way to the state Supreme Court.   
  • Impact on you: Abortion is currently completely illegal in Wisconsin, but if Kaul’s lawsuit is ultimately successful and the state Supreme Court strikes down the 1849 law, those in the state would once again have control over their reproductive healthcare decisions.

A Shift in Wisconsin’s Political Landscape

Wisconsin politics have been dominated by GOP influence for years, with the exception of the governorship, which has been blue since 2019. Both chambers of the state Legislature have been controlled by Republicans since 2011 (due in part to gerrymandering), and until this year’s April election, conservatives made the majority of the Supreme Court. 

Now, the state’s executive and judicial branches are held by liberals. The current status of issues  like abortion, elections, and redistricting in Wisconsin are likely to undergo seismic shifts over the next year as this transition occurs.


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