The three Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates faced off in a contentious first debate Tuesday as incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly fought off charges from his opponents that he's an "ideologue" and insinuations that he's corrupt.
Both Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky and Marquette University Law School professor Ed Fallone levied the challenges against the conservative Kelly, who countered he relies on the Constitution — rather than political biases — to decide cases.
But Karofsky, whose first attack against Kelly came in the initial minutes of the forum, slammed him for being "outcomes-driven" in his approach to deciding cases on the court.
"It is simply what voters see," she said. "You get support from special interests, you ignore the rule of law and you find in favor of those special interests over and over and over again and that feels like corruption to people in the state of Wisconsin."
Kelly, first appointed to the high court in 2016 by then-Gov. Scott Walker, countered that he studies the law as it applies case by case, then uses "rigorous logic" to move from premises to the conclusion.
"So unlike Judge Karofsky, I don’t judge the result of a case according to a political lens, I judge it according to what the law requires," he said.
The Madison event, which comes three months ahead of the February primary, was hosted by the Madison Lawyer Chapter of the American Constitution Society and moderated by UW-Madison journalism professor Michael Wagner.
During the hour-long debate, Fallone and Karofsky also criticized Kelly's approach to issuing decisions, claiming he is seeking to overturn past precedent and introduce instability to the court.
Fallone charged that Kelly "unnecessarily" decides constitutional questions because he's seeking "to remake our constitutional law and to overturn precedent that he believes was decided incorrectly."
"You are affirmatively reaching out and wanting to decide constitutional questions. That’s the problem and that’s not the role of a state Supreme Court judge," he said, adding later: "It is not a license for you to remake the Constitution in your own image."
Kelly, though, refuted the allegation and said he's never applied the Constitution needlessly.
"My reference point is always the law, not what we have previously said. That is a good indicator of what the law is, however sometimes the court gets it wrong and it's important that we say so when that happens," he said, noting if the U.S. Supreme Court followed precedence above the Constitution, "we'd have separate but equal instead of equality before the law."
During the hour-long debate, the candidates also touted the credentials they'd bring to a full 10-year term on the high court.
Kelly highlighted his three years of experience on the bench and his "breadth of experience" prior to that, including serving as a criminal defense attorney and special prosecutor.
Karfosky, a former Dane County deputy district attorney, said she's been "on the front lines of the system" and advocated for victims along with developing an understanding for "how the law impacts real people in Wisconsin."
Meanwhile, Fallone, who previously ran for the court in 2013, touted his past as a criminal defense lawyer and said the current makeup of the bench doesn't represent the "vast field" of law.
The primary is Feb. 18, while the general is April 7, the same day voters will weigh in on the Democratic presidential primary. ￼The court currently has a 5-2 conservative majority following the election of Justice Brian Hagedorn last April.