Two weeks to the day before a crucial election to decide whether conservatives or liberals control Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, the two candidates sparred in the only debate before Election Day.

The face-off Tuesday between far-left Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and conservative former state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly quickly took on the feel of bitter divorce proceedings — packed with allegations of corruption, scandals, and lies.

Kelly hammered home his campaign message: that he will faithfully apply the law as it is written, not politics, to his judicial decisions, something he says his opponent has proved incapable of doing.

Protasiewicz accused Kelly of being bought and paid for by conservative groups and beholden to those who support Wisconsin’s abortion ban.

The debate, hosted by the State Bar of Wisconsin, Channel 3000, and WisPolitics, provided the kind of rhetorical fireworks expected in a nationally watched election with so much gravitas, financed by so much outside money. As of Tuesday, WisPolitics estimated that $33 million had been spent backing and opposing the two candidates, more than double the $15 million reported have been the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history.

Much of the money, of course, is on the abortion issue.

Protasiewicz and Kelly are viewed as proxies for the pro-life and pro-abortion movements. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer overturning Roe v. Wade, Wisconsin’s once long-standing ban on abortion with limited exceptions “sprang back to life.” The matter will surely come before the Wisconsin Supreme Court after either Kelly or Protasiewicz is elected and takes the seat currently held by retiring conservative Justice Pat Roggensack.

Protasiewicz has been criticized for signaling how she would rule on high-profile issues like abortion and Wisconsin’s political maps. She has said she proudly embraces the progressive label. Kelly and his surrogates have blasted the judge for bringing her “personal politics” into the race.

“I have been very clear about my values to the electorate because I think the electorate deserves to know what my values are, rather than hiding them,” Protasiewicz said. “I’ve also made clear that any decision I render will be based solely on the law and the constitution.”

That position may be a hard sell after a quick perusal of her key endorsers, including pro-abortion power players Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood. Protasiewicz played the card that the left is banking on to take back Wisconsin’s high court after more than a decade in the judicial wilderness.

“I can tell you that if my opponent is elected, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the 1849 abortion ban will stay on the books,” Protasiewicz declared.

“That’s absolutely not true, once again. This seems to be a pattern for you, Janet, telling lies about me. You don’t know what I’m thinking about that abortion ban. You have no idea,” Kelly shot back, adding that he has told the pro-life organizations that have endorsed him that he will be the kind of jurist who follows the law, not politics.

Kelly hit Protasiewicz for issuing “soft-on-crime” sentences that set dangerous convicts free or gave them relatively little time behind bars. He noted that Protasiewicz gave no prison time to a repeat felon charged with abducting a 15-year-old Milwaukee girl and sexually assaulting her in a hotel room.

Kelly also pointed to the case of Jovian Reese, 23, who was convicted in 2018 of sexually assaulting his cousin while she slept. While Reese faced a maximum sentence of 10 years, Protasiewicz opted to give him just 14 months in prison, along with 50 hours of community service, according to 1130 WISN.

At the sentencing hearing in March 2019, the victim told the court she cried for days after the assault and grew depressed and isolated because she “felt that she had no one to talk to because everyone in the family took his side,” 1130 WISN reported.

“Are you a danger to the public? I don’t think so,” Protasiewicz said to Reese before handing down the light sentence.

Groups opposing the judge have paid for ads pounding Protasiewicz on the sentences. She said the commercials are “unfair.”

“I have spent my entire life protecting our community,” the former Milwaukee County prosecutor said, asserting the cases used against her were “cherry-picked” and “twisted.”

Kelly charged his opponent and her allies with scurrilously lying about his record as an attorney, including Protasiewicz’s attack on Kelly for representing “monsters” accused of sexually assaulting children. Court records show the pro-Protasiewicz ads step all over the truth, however.

“When I say my opponent has told sloppy and irresponsible lies, I mean that in every possible way. They are false, they are defamatory and they are incredibly sloppy,” the former justice said.

In calling for a recusal policy for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Protasiewicz again said she would recuse herself from cases involving the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The party has bankrolled her campaign to the tune of millions of dollars. She pledged to be “fair and impartial.”

Kelly said he will not take campaign funds from the Republican Party of Wisconsin, but he welcomes everyone’s support. He pointed to Protasiewicz’s financial backing by the Democratic Party.

“If she were to be elected to the Supreme Court she would forever after be known as being bought and paid for by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin,” the candidate said.

Tuesday’s debate is it for the election. Protasiewicz has backed out of several debates and candidate forums in recent weeks, agreeing to appear only at the State Bar event.

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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Janet Protasiewicz” by Janet for Justice. Photo “Daniel Kelly” by Justice Daniel Kelly. Background Photo “Wisconsin Supreme Court” by Daderot. CC0 1.0.