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The retirement of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack has given Democrats hope of flipping the state high court to liberal control in April. 

Because Wisconsin’s spring elections for judicial, school board and local government posts are officially nonpartisan, and because they take place on a timeline that does not parallel high-profile November voting when contests for the presidency and the governorship are decided, people tend to imagine that spring voting isn’t quite as important as fall voting.

That’s a warped calculus. Spring elections decide who is in charge at the municipal and county levels of government, where most of the big decisions are made about public safety, the delivery of services and property tax rates. They shape the school boards that decide how children are taught. And they name the  jurists who weigh criminal and civil cases in our municipalities and counties, and who interpret our laws at the appellate and Supreme Court levels of the state’s judicial branch.

Even a mundane spring election season matters to the thousands of candidates who bid for town and village board posts, for the mayoralties and councils of our cities, for board of education slots and judgeships. And it matters for the millions of Wisconsinites whose lives will be impacted by these officials.

But 2023’s spring elections will be anything but mundane. The filing deadline that passed on Tuesday set up mayoral races in Madison, Green Bay and Racine. Madison also has a crowded slate of City Council contests and an open-seat School Board race. The same goes for surrounding communities in Dane County.

But this spring there’s more going on than the usual local politics. There's an important special election for the open state Senate seat in the Milwaukee area, which could well see Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin pick up a previously Republican seat in the heavily gerrymandered chamber.

That alone would make this spring election consequential.

But the contest for an open seat of the state Supreme Court has the potential to tip the balance of the court away from the fringe right-wing politicization that has defined it in recent years and toward a renewed respect for the rule of law.

A conservative judicial activist, former Chief Justice Patience "Pat" Roggensack, who has sat on the high court since 2003, is standing down. That’s good news for the court, and for Wisconsin. Roggensack served as a rank partisan who was more interested in behind-the-scenes political maneuvers than in pursuing justice. She will forever be remembered for the crass moves she made to grab the court’s top position away from former Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the most distinguished jurist in the modern history of the state.

In recent years, Roggensack has been part of a conservative majority than has turned the Supreme Court into a national embarrassment. With her fellow conservative judicial activist colleagues, Roggensack undermined public health measures during the coronavirus pandemic, eroded nonpartisan oversight of elections and embraced gerrymandering of legislative districts to favor the conservative majority's Republican allies.

Unlike U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative who has sought to temper the worst partisan excesses of right-wing ideologues on the federal bench, Roggensack, as chief justice from 2015 to 2021, encouraged extremism on the state bench — even when the rule of law was abandoned for the sake of political positioning.

The voters were not impressed. Since 2018, conservatives have lost two places on the high court bench with the easy elections of a pair of mainstream progressive jurists. Justice Rebecca Dallet won in 2018 by a 56-44 margin, and Justice Jill Karofsky won by a 55-45 margin in 2020.

Now the court is balanced 4-3, with right-wingers clinging to a one-seat majority. Roggensack’s decision not to seek a new 10-year term has opened the way for a decisive contest that a progressive can win. That’s vital because, as Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz says, “The court needs change, the court really needs to change. Those four seats (held by right-wing justices) have voted in such a block, so consistently, and with results that, in my opinion, are so unfair to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin.”

The February primary features two conservatives, former Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow. Kelly was a Roggensack ally before voters swept him from office in 2020. Dorow holds out little promise of change.

The hope for a better court rests with the progressives who are in the running: Protasiewicz, who is running with strong support from many jurists, including Justice Dallet; and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell, a lawyer and pastor who is endorsed by former Justice Louis Butler and who has long been active in the Madison community.

Both Mitchell and Protasiewicz are experienced jurists who have displayed a thoughtful understanding of the state and federal constitutions. For progressives, the question is which contender would be the strongest in an April general election against a conservative.

If voters bet right, and if Roggensack’s seat is taken by a progressive, the court will be able to revisit the issues it got wrong during Roggensack’s tenure — including the gerrymandering of legislative and congressional district lines. That would restore representative democracy in Wisconsin.

That prospect, alone, will make this year's spring election the most important in the modern history of Wisconsin.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. 

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