Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly

If you thought the race last year between Judges Lisa Neubauer and Brian Hagedorn was ugly, just wait. The Karofsky-Kelly battle could be worse.

On Monday, the Journal Sentinel, in an article by Dan Brice, headlined that Supreme Court candidate Jill Karofsky gave the lightest sentence possible to a murderer. Now it’s a campaign issue.

Well, true, but as usual, the headline, which will be the only thing many people read, doesn’t tell the whole story.

In the article, Brice points out that the sentencing, in April, was indeed lenient, but Karofsky did not let the convicted murderer, a 61-year-old Marshall man, off lightly. She sentenced him to life in prison, but with the stipulation that he could apply for release under extended supervision in 20 years–when the man would be 81. 

In her sentence, Karofsky did not say the man would be released in 20 years, only that he could apply for the extended supervision. He is not guaranteed extended supervision. In her sentencing, Karofsky said he could apply for it. She also noted that the man’s age in 20 years, was a factor in her decision. 

But Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge Daniel Kelly, a conservative running against Karofsky in an effort to retain his seat on the court this Spring, attacked Karofsky’s decision. Kelly, who had never sat as a judge prior to being appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, had his campaign manager say, “These cases suggest a troubling pattern by Judge Karofsky of letting hardened criminals off easy–a sure sign of an activist judge.” The campaign manager, Charles Nichols, was referring to another case involving Karofsky’s acceptance of a plea bargain. Note that plea bargains typically come from the prosecutor’s office. In accepting the plea, Karofsky was simply going along with the prosecutor. This is common practice.

A spokesperson for Karofsky is quoted as attacking Kelly, calling his comments  “desperate attacks,” and “mudslinging.” She added, “Dan Kelly has never prosecuted violent criminals, served as a trial judge, or worked as a victim advocate,” adding, Dan Kelley doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with judges acting like politicians, ruling in favor of his own supporters and ignoring the Constitution and the law to achieve his political goals.”  

Judicial ethics, of course, prohibit Karosky from commenting publicly on the case, in part because the defendant’s attorney in the murder trial, has indicated he plans to appeal her decision, which means Kelly’s surrogates are free to attack her and she can’t respond.

Kelly’s attack, for sure the first of many to come, was unusual in that judges typically do not comment on cases that might end up coming before them. But the judicial environment in Wisconsin and nationally, has changed recently, with the last Wisconsin State Supreme Court race between Judges Lisa Neubauer and Brian Hagedron being one the most expensive and bitter races on record.

Judging on what has happened so far, it appears should expect more of the same. 

For example, in November, in an article on the WTMJ website, Karofsky, attacked Kelly, saying in a debate,  “What voters see is that 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.”  View that article.

As an attorney, Kelly represented the Wisconsin Republican Party, defending its highly gerrymandered 2011 redistricting plan.

Read that Brice article from the Journal Sentinel