Progressives officially gained a 4-3 majority on Wisconsin's Supreme Court on Tuesday when Janet Protasiewicz was sworn in to replace a conservative justice, capping off a string of progressive takeovers of the top courts in several pivotal swing states throughout the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest in recent years.
During the 2012 elections, Barack Obama carried Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, continuing a string of Democratic presidential victories in each state going back to 1992. But at the same time, Republicans or conservatives enjoyed majorities on all four states' supreme courts. Now, however, Democrats or progressives control all of them.
Flipping these courts has major implications for stopping gerrymandering, preserving voting rights, and preventing far-right efforts to steal elections, as Donald Trump attempted following his 2020 defeat. These judicial transformations will also have a considerable impact on a host of other important issues, such as protecting access to abortion.
Following the GOP wave in the 2010 midterms, Republicans gained unified control over state governments in three of these Great Lakes states and fell just a few thousand votes short in Minnesota. That allowed Republicans in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to pass ruthless gerrymanders that let them maintain their majorities in 2012 even though Obama and downballot Democrats won more votes overall—and by taking over the state courts, they were able to insulate those rigged maps from legal challenges. However, that all began to change part way through the decade.
After a concerted effort, Democrats flipped Pennsylvania's Supreme Court in the 2015 elections, and they now hold a 4-2 majority (with one Democratic seat vacant). In 2018, that new majority struck down the GOP's congressional gerrymander and replaced it with a fairer map that resulted in an evenly split delegation. Similarly, after the 2020 census, the court drew another fair congressional map and set the stage for replacing the GOP's legislative gerrymanders with fairer districts that let Democrats narrowly win the state House for the first time since 2008.
In Michigan, meanwhile, Democrats gained a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court in the 2020 elections and maintained it last year. Voters there had used a 2018 ballot initiative to end GOP gerrymandering through an independent redistricting commission, and Democratic control over the court helped ensure it was faithfully implemented. With fair maps for the first time in two decades, Democrats finally flipped both legislative chambers last year and gained full control over state government for the first time in four decades.
Minnesota took an alternate course in 2010, when Mark Dayton narrowly won his bid for governor, becoming the first Democrat to hold that post in two decades. That victory gave him the power to fill vacant seats on the state Supreme Court, and after securing a second term four years later, Dayton's appointments finally flipped the court to a Democratic majority in 2016. Now, thanks to his successor, fellow Democrat Tim Walz, Democratic appointees enjoy a 5-2 edge, which will soon expand to 6-1.
Finally, there's Wisconsin. Even though Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who ousted Scott Walker in 2018, had the power to veto the GOP legislature's maps after the 2020 census, the state Supreme Court's conservative majority implemented new Republican gerrymanders anyway for 2022. They did this by concocting a requirement that court-drawn maps must change existing districts as little as possible. As a result, they made minimal tweaks to the congressional lines and outright adopted the very same legislative maps that GOP lawmakers had failed to pass over Evers' veto.
However, progressives won April's court race to gain a 4-3 majority, their first in 15 years, and Protasiewicz herself during her campaign had called the GOP's new gerrymanders "rigged." A ruling striking them down could be a matter of "when," not "if." Indeed just the day after she was sworn in, progressives filed a lawsuit seeking to strike down the GOP's legislative maps, and voting rights advocates had already filed their own lawsuit just two weeks earlier aiming to overturn absentee ballot restrictions, including one laid down by the high court's former conservative majority, which banned drop boxes just last year.
With the 2024 presidential election coming into sharper view, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will likely once again emerge as three of the most important swing states, and Minnesota can never be counted out as a potential battleground. But now that progressives control the top courts in each state, these new judicial majorities will be able to protect fair elections, a development that could have national reverberations for years to come.