by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
January 3, 2023
Update: This story has been updated to include a comment from Dan Kelly’s campaign.
The two conservatives running for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court appeared at an event in early December in which they stated support for legislative investigations in the style of the discredited review by Michael Gableman and lawsuits brought by right-wing groups aimed at dismantling election laws meant to make voting more accessible.
The two candidates, former Justice Dan Kelly and Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow appeared at a Dec. 6 panel hosted by the Republican Women of Waukesha County for “celebrating conservatives in law.” Kelly and Dorow appeared alongside conservative appeals court Judges Shelly Grogan and Maria Lazar, as well as Libby Sobic, the director of education policy at the right-wing Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL).
A video of the event was posted to Facebook Live by conservative activist Scarlett Johnson.
Both Dorow and Kelly are running to be the conservative-aligned candidate who emerges from the four-way nonpartisan primary for an open seat on the court. Liberal judges Janet Protasiewicz and Everett Mitchell are also in the race.
Kelly, who held a seat on the court until his defeat by Justice Jill Karofsky in April 2020, has gained the support of conservative legal figures in the state such as Justice Rebecca Bradley. An outside group largely sponsored by the right-wing billionaires Richard and Liz Uihlein has already pledged to spend millions of dollars to put him back on the bench. During his failed 2020 campaign, Kelly was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Dorow gained attention earlier this year as she presided over the trial of the man who killed six people when he drove through the Waukesha Christmas Parade in 2021. She entered the race after receiving calls from across the state pushing for her to run. Dorow has been endorsed by former Republican Attorney General candidate Eric Toney and more than 30 county sheriffs.
At the Waukesha County event, Kelly was asked a question by state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) about the Legislature’s oversight role. Brandtjen was recently stripped of all her committee assignments and banned from Assembly Republicans’ caucus meetings for her leadership of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, where she fruitlessly searched for evidence of election fraud in the 2020 election and increasingly aired public criticism of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
Brandjten has also been a prominent supporter of efforts to decertify the results of the 2020 election — an illegal and impossible legal maneuver — and of the widely derided review of that election by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman.
The Gableman review ended suddenly when he was fired by Vos for endorsing his primary opponent. The investigation, which lasted more than a year and cost millions of dollars, did not turn up any evidence of election fraud.
In response to Brandtjen’s question at the December panel, Kelly said there should be even more oversight of various aspects of government from the Republicans who control the Legislature. He cited a 160-page manual he published last year in conjunction with the conservative Institute for Reforming Government about legislative oversight and the ways it can be used as a “call to action” for people.
“My encouragement to the Legislature is to remember their authority because that could be one of the most powerful ways that they can engage in protecting our liberties,” Kelly said.
Mike Browne, deputy director of progressive advocacy group A Better Wisconsin Together, says Brandtjen and Kelly pushing for even more investigations is dangerous.
“We’ve watched MAGA faction legislators like Janel Brandtjen literally throw away millions of our tax dollars on a sham legislative inquiry, spurred by Donald Trump and his allies’ criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election,” Browne said. “Dan Kelly is not only calling for more of these shams, he’s bragging that he’s written the how-to manual for them. Dan Kelly’s support for more MAGA faction attacks on our freedoms is appalling and dangerous.”
A Kelly campaign spokesman said in a statement that the remarks were meant to push legislators to exercise their responsibility to conduct oversight and make sure the laws they pass are doing what they were meant to.
“Justice Kelly did not suggest more election investigations were necessary,” the spokesman, Jim Dick, said. “His remarks addressed the legislators’ general responsibility to conduct oversight investigations and hearings to ensure the laws they enact are achieving their intended results, and to inform themselves and the public of the need for new or different legislation.”
Later in the event, Sobic discussed WILL’s need to attract plaintiffs for the organization’s lawsuits that target liberal policies. In the past few years, WILL has been involved in successful lawsuits to ban the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, weaken COVID-19 health restrictions and force a wolf hunting season.
“The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, we can only bring cases if we have clients,” Sobic said. “When we talk about what issues are going to get in front of the judges on this panel, we exist to fight for conservative values and to litigate really important questions. So if you are frustrated by an issue, I’d encourage you to reach out to the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty because we need clients to get in front of the judges.”
Dorow agreed with Sobic about the need for plaintiffs to bring issues to the courts as a way to influence state policy toward their conservative values.
When an audience member asked about the actions of “Democrat judges” in places like Madison, Dorow said, “So I think, to kind of jump off of what [Sobic] was saying, right, she needs clients,” Dorow said. “We need to be willing to bring these issues before courts, whether it be the trial courts or to the Supreme Court if those cases have highest priority.”
In the same response, however, she disclaimed any intent to prejudge cases from right-wing groups — while also vowing to reflect the original intent behind laws that the court considers.
“And the one thing we need to make sure for people like myself who want to be on the Supreme Court is not to pre-judge those cases, not to say in this particular thing, I would do X, Y or Z because obviously these issues are very likely to come before judges in Wisconsin,” Dorow said, “but to pledge to all of you that we will look at the law, as written, as it’s understood by those who wrote it, really the common people at the time…”
Browne says Dorow’s comments show she would be in the pocket of WILL on the bench.
“While sharing the stage with current judges and high court hopefuls, a representative of the right-wing Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty pitched members of the audience to sign up as clients to help them use our courts to advance their political agenda,” he said. “Jennifer Dorow flat out endorsed this right-wing political strategy and, with a wink and a nod, signaled she’d be another shill for the WILL if she’s on our state high court.”
Dorow campaign manager Amber Schroeder said in a statement that Dorow simply said she’d apply the law to the facts of a case, which is what she’s always done as a judge.
“As Judge Dorow makes clear in her remarks, she does not prejudge cases,” Schroeder said. “As she points out, she views her role as a judge to fairly and impartially apply the law to the facts of a case. That’s what Judge Dorow has done over the course of her 11 years as a circuit court judge and it is what she’ll do as a Supreme Court Justice.”
The Supreme Court primary election is scheduled for Feb. 21.
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