By Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
If one thing can be said about Wisconsin Supreme Court Candidate Jill Karofsky that can’t be said about her opponents–incumbent Justice Dan Kelly and Marquette University law professor Ed Falone, it’s this: she has practical experience presiding over court cases.
To Karofsky, a Dane County Circuit Court judge and a former assistant attorney general with the state Department of Justice, the law is not an esoteric exercise. Not when you preside over criminal and civil cases that impact people, especially the economically disadvantaged.
“Real people are impacted (by crime),” Karofsky said during an MCJ interview about her candidacy. “I see it every day.”
Karofsky presided over 1,700 cases in 2019, which gives her a huge advantage over her opponents who have no judicial experience. Incumbent justice Kelly was a lawyer on the federal, county (Milwaukee), and private levels. Fallone has spent 25 years in a university classroom.
The state’s first violence against women resource prosecutor, Karofsky also headed the Wisconsin Office of Crime Victim Services. “We helped victims all over the state get the help and services they needed,” she said. Karofsky was also an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin law school teaching about victims in the criminal justice system and trial advocacy.
Karofsky said she’s in the race to get the state’s high court “back on track” following the rule of law, not corporate interests. She said Kelly represents everything that’s wrong with the court, which is currently dominated by conservative justices, 5 to 2.
“Governor Walker didn’t appoint people with judicial experience,” Karofsky said, referring to former Governor Scott Walker. “He wanted people who are going to carry the water of corporate and wealthy special interests, which is what Dan Kelly has done.”
That’s a critical point to Karofsky, who noted the next few years will be an incredibly busy one for the high court as it tackles such issues as redistricting, women’s access to health care, and criminal justice reform.
“Who we have making decisions (on the supreme court) matters,” Karofsky said. “These (judicial) elections have incredible consequences. I want to live in a state where the court makes decisions on these issues based on the law. The state Supreme Court has been bought and paid for by corporations.”
The Dane County judge says she will bring Wisconsin values to the court. She credits her parents for teaching her the importance of public service. Her mother Judy was one of the first women mayors in the state (Middleton, where Karofsky grew up), and her father Peter, a pediatrician who opened a free clinic for teens after retiring.
Now as a single mother of a daughter in college and a son in high school, Karofsky is passing down to them the values taught to her, and that she wants to bring to the state Supreme Court.
“I talked to my kids every day about the importance of rights for women, for workers, and civil rights. My kids are concerned about gun violence, ‘code red’ drills, climate change; they see corruption on the state and national level. And they’re depending on adults to solve the problems. It’s those values I would bring to the court.”
Karofsky believes her experience on the bench dealing with a myriad of cases will be useful to the state’s high court and give the other justices a different perspective on what’s happening in urban communities like Milwaukee, Madison, and the rest of the state.
“We need justices willing to share with the state legislature what they see so lawmakers can make changes in policies that are needed.”
Karofsky says she understands the Black community’s distrust of the criminal justice system, because she’s seen it and has fought it first hand. “I’ve seen examples of racial bias. I acknowledge racial bias. I’ve seen injustice (in the courtroom) and took action to correct it.”Do you want someone (on the Supreme Court) who acknowledges racial bias, or someone who denies there is racial bias?”
To Karofsky, it’s about bringing back balance–as well as confidence–to the court.
The court candidates will square off on Feb. 18. The two top vote getters will meet each other in the April 7 Spring election.