What To Watch for in Pivotal Wisconsin Supreme Court Race

A Wisconsin county judge is seeking to preserve the high court’s liberal majority in her campaign to replace an outgoing justice on the state Supreme Court.

If Dane County Circuit Court Judge Susan Crawford succeeds in her bid to replace retiring Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, she’d maintain the court’s 4-3 liberal majority secured last year when Janet Protasiewicz won her race against conservative former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly.

Crawford is running against former Republican state Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Waukesha County judge who announced his campaign for Bradley’s seat last year. 

Whoever is elected on April 1, 2025 will serve a 10-year term. Crawford and Shimel are currently the only candidates. But if more challengers enter the race, a primary will be held on Feb. 18, the Associated Press reported.  

Crawford isn’t just aware of the ideological balance at stake, she’s made it part of her platform. “For the first time in years, we have a majority on the court focused on getting the facts right, following the law, and protecting our constitutional rights,” Crawford said in a statement provided to WisPolitics. “We can’t risk having that progress reversed.”

Her campaign underscores how judicial ideologies can affect active cases, particularly when there’s a shift. In perhaps the state’s most closely-watched election case, the court is weighing whether to reverse a ban on secure ballot drop boxes. The justices in March agreed to reconsider the 2022 ruling by a conservative majority that banned the use of drop boxes throughout the state. 

Here’s what you need to know about the 2025 race:

It will get very political 

On the day Crawford announced her campaign, the Wisconsin Democratic Party praised her as a “pro-democracy candidate committed to looking out for Wisconsinites and upholding the rule of law,” while calling Schimel an “extreme, right-wing politician.” Similarly, the state GOP called Crawford a “partisan shill.” While such comments are typical of state political parties, they stand out in a race that’s meant to be nonpartisan.

The 2023 match between Protasiewicz and conservative opponent Daniel Kelly marked the most expensive judicial race in the nation’s history, the Journal-Sentinel reported, with Democratic and Republican interest groups spending millions on each candidate. 

“I think the Supreme Court races have become as important as any other race in the state,” Barry Burden, a political science professor at UW-Madison and director of the Elections Research Center, told Democracy Docket. “It’s become the one election that really decides the direction of the state.”

Gerrymandering could be a key issue for Republicans

A group of Wisconsin voters last year challenged the state’s legislative maps in a petition filed in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. They argued that the state’s legislative maps drawn after the 2020 census release were extreme partisan gerrymanders in favor of Republicans and in violation of the state constitution.

The petition noted that Wisconsin Republicans have a history of aggressive gerrymanders, an issue the voters say was even more severe in 2021 when the GOP-controlled Legislature redrew the state’s electoral districts. The high court sided with voters in December, after which the state enacted fairer legislative districts.

Howard Schweber, a retired political science professor and affiliate faculty member at the University of Wisconsin Law School, told Democracy Docket abortion and gerrymandering were key issues animating last year’s election (abortion being the top concern), and will likely remain important next year. “Conservatives hope the election of Brad Schimel will shift the majority back to them,” he said. 

“Republicans in Wisconsin understand fully that the loss of the pro-Republican gerrymander would doom their hold on the state’s politics,” he said, explaining that while this wouldn’t mean Democrats would suddenly dominate Wisconsin’s divided political landscape, it could potentially undermine the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly. 

Why the race matters for Wisconsin’s elections

The designation of “liberal” or “conservative” pertains more to how a judge interprets the law than what a judge personally believes. This matters because, as Schweber explained, a judge being perceived or identifying as liberal means they generally try to “interpret statutes and codes and constitutions liberally in order to achieve beneficial goals, as opposed to interpreting statutes and constitutions very strictly.” 

“It’d be consistent with a liberal traditional philosophy to read voting rules in a way that accomplishes the beneficial goal of enabling all voters to get to the polls and cast their vote,” he said. Conversely, “you can view conservative justices’ insistence on strict voting rules as a partisan effort to benefit Republican candidates, or you can read it as an expression of a general conservative judicial philosophy.”

That distinction seems to matter in a case like Brown v. Wisconsin Elections Commission, a 2022 lawsuit filed by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty that challenged the use of mobile voting sites in the city of Racine. This month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court froze part of a lower court ruling which held that Racine’s distribution of absentee voting sites unlawfully afforded an advantage to the Democratic Party.

Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley took issue with part of the majority ruling in her opinion, stating that “in its ongoing effort to resolve cases in a manner benefitting its preferred political party, the majority enters a bewildering order heretofore unheard of in the legal realm,” and later says the majority misinterpreted the circuit court ruling that was partially paused. 

Read background on Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 2023 election race here.