One-on-One: Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz

Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 8:07 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Voters statewide will head to the polls on Tuesday, February 21, to select two candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court to move on to the spring general election on April 4.

Janet Protasiewicz was a Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney for 26 years before being elected as a Milwaukee County judge in 2014.

Watch an extended interview with Janet Protasiewicz:

Interview with Janet Protasiewicz

Leigh Mills: Let’s start with this, and I’ve asked all of the candidates this same question, what do you want voters to know about you and your priorities if elected to the bench?

Judge Janet Protasiewicz: I want voters to know that I am impartial, that I am fair, that every legal decision needs to be rooted in the law. I also believe we need some change on our Wisconsin Supreme Court. Change and common sense. We need to get away from the extremism. We need to get away from the radicalism. We need a justice who’s going to uphold the law, uphold the Constitution and make decisions that are rooted in the law.

LM: What do you think sets you apart from the other three candidates?

JP: Just that, quite frankly. I think that my two opponents on the right are real extremists and are real partisans. In regard to my friendly opponent on the left, I think we probably have the same school of thought generally, but he and I have very different backgrounds and very different sets of experiences.

LM: You bring up the left and the right this race is non-partisan but to your point, it will indicate the ideological makeup of the court and that balance of power between conservative and liberal leaning justices. And there have been a number of people who’ve watched this play out criticize, not this race specifically but in general, criticize the supreme court for being drawn into the political fray. Do you think that is the new reality?

JP: Here’s what I think. I think there are issues that are coming up before our Wisconsin Supreme Court that concern everyone, and some of the most important issues of our lifetime are likely going to be decided by this Supreme Court. I also think there are all sorts of issues that are non-partisan. You take community safety, everybody cares about community safety, from the far left to the far right you talk about independence, you talk about impartial, you talk about getting away from extremism. Everybody cares about that from left to right, but you talk about some of the social issues, and I’ve been pretty up front about my values and up front about my opinions, because I think the voters deserve to know that.

LM: So, speaking of the big issues, we know that there will be some upcoming rulings on major issues including abortion. Do you believe the 1849 abortion ban should be overturned, upheld, is it outdated? Where do you stand on this issue?

JP: Well, I tell people a few things in regard to that. First of all, my personal value is that women should have the right to choose, obviously in conjunction with your family, with your healthcare provider, with your clergy, with whoever is important to you to talk about that very important decision. That should be a woman’s right to choose. That’s my value. I don’t know how the argument is going to be structured when it comes in front of our Wisconsin Supreme Court. I am certain that it will. Do i think that an 1849 law is outdated? Of course. Look at the differences in medical science and in 1849 women weren’t even allowed to vote. But the question really is going to be how does that case come before our Wisconsin Supreme Court? What are the issues going to be? And of course, that decision will be made based on the law and based on the Constitution.

LM: It’s interesting to hear your answer to that question, because I asked all four of you a similar question, and the other three were reluctant to directly answer related to their values. And I saw recently that you said you believe judicial candidates should share their values. Why?

JP: I think the public has the right to know and I think you know you have this kind of like gauzy you know curtain behind that candidates can hide behind. I don’t believe for a second quite frankly that my opponents on the right, who are getting endorsements from Wisconsin right to life and other extreme groups are going into those endorsement interviews and saying, ‘I’m not going to tell you what my value or my opinion is.’ That just seems disingenuous to me. My message is the same wherever I go, whoever I talk to, it’s the same. This is my value, this is what I think, and I’m not making any promises as to how I plan to rule on any case that comes before the Supreme Court.

LM: Can you talk specifically about, and it will be different in a Milwaukee County courtroom versus the Supreme Court, but how you would go about keeping politics out of a decision you would make?

JP: The Circuit Court, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court are obviously very different. On the Circuit Court I follow the law 100% whether I agree with it or whether I don’t. Whether sometimes when I see a statute and I kind of roll my eyes and think I don’t think that everything was considered when this statute was put into place or I read a case law, I have to follow it regardless of what my personal opinion is. Then we have the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals is an error correcting court. Any case that’s decided before our Circuit Court can be appealed to the Court of Appeals. And the Court of Appeals looks at it, and makes a decision and decides yeah, that Circuit Court judge got it right, or they got it wrong, or they got part of it right, and we’re sending it back so they can, you know, fix it. Then you’ve got the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court only takes a handful of cases as we all know, cases that really impact the people of the state of Wisconsin the most, cases that have the most cutting edge issues. And in that role you are to a certain extent developing the common law, but of course when you’re developing the common law you’re looking at the Constitution. You’re looking at all the cases that came before it to continue to develop the cases that come before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and those opinions.

LM: I want to use a direct quote here, so I’m going to use my paper. This is from one of your opponents and something he said during our interview in the last two weeks. That you were quote “explicit that you are not bound by the law” and he was talking about a comment you made about putting your thumb on cases and that would not do that for a majority but implying that maybe there would be some. How do you respond to that criticism?

JP: I’m not even sure what he means with that type of criticism. What I’ve been telling people is you need a fair, impartial Supreme Court. You don’t need extremism. And you don’t need a court. Nobody should have a court, we deserve better, than a court where there’s a thumb on the scale. So I suspect I know who made that comment, and that is a person who when Justice Brian Hagedorn did something he didn’t agree with, called him quote “supremely unreliable”. You know, nobody should be unreliable as a Supreme Court Justice. Every case should be decided on its merits and of course with the law and the Constitution. So I’m not quite sure. I suspect that this is the same person, who when we had a forum in Madison last month, said he opposes a recusal rule. The same person who is accepting substantial amounts of outside money and outside financing and quite frankly is even bragging about it, right? So you have this person willing to take all of this money from outside groups, outside entities, outside individuals, billionaires, and then saying guess what I don’t need to recuse myself on a case. I’m going to follow the law and the constitution. Of the four of us in Madison during that forum, I said we absolutely need a recusal rule. The public deserves better than that. We need a public hearing. People need to weigh in and say, when should a Supreme Court justice take a step back? Because there are some times a justice needs to take a step back.

LM: Do you or have you accepted large amounts of outside money?

JP: We haven’t accepted any outside money to the best of my knowledge. Our campaign has out-fundraised all three of my opponents combined. And I think that that is truly in part to the hard work we’re doing, but it’s also to such a large extent how much people are tired of the extremism. They want normal back. They want a court that follows the law. They want change. They want common sense. They want those decisions rooted in the law. And so do I anticipate that outside money will be coming in if we move forward after Tuesday, February 21? I would anticipate it. I don’t know it, you can’t coordinate. I haven’t talked to anybody about it. But to the best of my knowledge no outside money has come in for me up to this point.

LM: Let’s go back to your background, thinking about your role as a judge in Milwaukee County. How has that prepared you for a potential seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court?

JP: In lots of ways. I just finished a three year, I call it a tour of duty. Handling homicide, sexual assault cases. That’s all I did for three years, homicides, sexual assault cases, child pornography cases. Before that I was doing really serious drug dealing cases. Before that I was doing domestic violence cases. What you learn from all of these cases is the humanity that’s involved. The decisions that you make and how you make them impact people. They impact neighborhoods. That the decisions are so critically important. But obviously you learn how to critically analyze the case law, the statutes, the briefs that come before you. You know that homicide sexual assault assignment was very challenging. Not just because of the content, and the content was challenging, right? Watching people die on a body cam and making the determination as to whether or not a jury should be able to see that body cam video of a person dying in front of them who has been stabbed. You know the content is hard, but the rigorous legal analysis that goes into making the evidentiary decisions and making determinations and imposing the sentences on those cases really I would have to say is quite frankly among the most challenging exercises you can have in our judicial system

LM: When I think about the differences between the four of you and the things that have been shared. And typically it’s two people who feel a certain way and the other two who feel a different way. Is it possible that instead of one side being right that we’re looking at four intelligent people who just disagree?

JP: I don’t think so. I think that my two opponents on the right are extremists. I think they’re extreme partisans. I don’t believe for a second that they are going to analyze the law in a fair and impartial way. You know you look at you know both of them, both of them indicating they don’t think we need a recusal rule. Both of them having far right endorsements. I mean I look at it and I think, I don’t know how you can fairly and impartially come to a decision that is going to be fair, meet the constitutional criteria, follow our statutes, I just don’t.

LM: Is there anything else you want to add that you would want to make sure our voters know ahead of Tuesday?

JP: Well I’m delighted to be here, I thank you very much. I hope our voters all understand and I hope they’re educated about this election. That this election is about fairness, integrity, change, common sense and getting away from extremism.

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