MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 06: Elections official Paula Volpiansky (C) tears apart "I VOTED" stickers at the Madison Central Public Library on the last day of early voting on November 06, 2022 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A record number of votes for a midterm election are expected to be cast across the United States. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Inside 'the most important election' of 2023
02:41 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The two candidates battling for a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court clashed Tuesday over the state’s 1849 abortion ban in their lone debate, underscoring the high stakes of an election that could decide the issue in one of the nation’s most important swing states.

Former Justice Daniel Kelly, a conservative, and liberal opponent Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz will square off April 4 in an election that will decide the balance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In a state where control is split between a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, the high court could decide the outcome of legal battles over the state’s abortion laws, its legislative maps and more.

The debate – the only one scheduled between Protasiewicz and Kelly – took place on the same day Wisconsin voters began casting early ballots in person.

It’s the nation’s most expensive judicial contest on record, with about $30 million already spent on advertising and counting, as there are two weeks remaining in the campaign. Wisconsin is one of 14 states in the country that directly elects Supreme Court justice in this manner.

Protasiewicz focused her attacks on Kelly on abortion, with the state’s 1849 ban on nearly all abortions currently being challenged in court and likely to land before the state Supreme Court.

“If my opponent is elected, I can tell you with 100% certainty, that 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books. I can tell you that,” Protasiewicz said in Tuesday’s debate.

She said she is “making no promises” on how she would rule on the 1849 abortion law. But she also noted her personal support for abortion rights, as well as endorsements from pro-abortion rights groups. And she pointed to Kelly’s endorsement by Wisconsin Right to Life, which opposes abortion rights.

Kelly shot back that Protasiewicz’s comments are “absolutely not true.”

“You don’t know what I’m thinking about that abortion ban,” he said. “You have no idea. These things you do not know.”

The debate took place before a crowd of about 100 people who were seated in an auditorium at the offices of the State Bar of Wisconsin in Madison. The candidates answered questions from a panel of three Wisconsin reporters as the audience watched in silence.

The rhetoric grew increasingly bitter and testy, particularly on the topics of abortion, redistricting and criminal sentencing, with the two rivals standing several feet apart on a small stage. The differences that have been aired in a multi-million television ad campaign came alive.

Kelly looked directly at his opponent and repeatedly raised pointed questions about her integrity, saying at one point: “This seems to be a pattern for you, Janet, telling lies about me.” He called her by her first name, Janet, rather than judge.

Protasiewic only occasionally looked toward her challenger, but pushed back against an allegation that she is soft on crime: “I have worked very hard to keep our community safe, each and every day I’m on the bench.”

Kelly accused Protasiewicz of handing down light sentences to violent offenders.

He cited the case of Anton Veasley, who in 2021 was convicted of child enticement and third degree sexual assault and was released after Protasiewicz stayed his five-year prison sentence with four years of probation, giving him credit for 417 days he’d already spent in jail.

“We look at the sentencing she has composed and the reasoning she used to reach those conclusions, and that’s just irresponsible to allow dangerous convicted criminals back out so easily with no repercussions into the communities they just got done victimizing,” Kelly said.

Protasiewicz acknowledged that “hindsight is 20/20.” But she said Kelly was mischaracterizing her record.

“I have sentenced thousands of people. And it’s interesting that a handful of cases have been cherry-picked and selected and twisted, and insufficient facts have been provided to the electorate,” she said.