The long run for Jill Karofsky

Jill Karofsky’s successful race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court was the result of determination — hers and that of voters.
Jill Karofsky holding her running shoes
Photo by John Ficenec

A day or two after Lisa Neubauer lost an agonizingly close Wisconsin Supreme Court race to Brian Hagedorn in April 2019, Jill Karofsky sent her mom a five-word text message.

“Can I beat Dan Kelly?”

Daniel Kelly was a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice appointed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2016 to a term that expired in 2020.

Karofsky was a Dane County circuit court judge. Judicial elections are officially nonpartisan, though in practice they get political. Kelly, like Hagedorn, is conservative. Karofsky, like Neubauer, is more progressive.

Karofsky knew challenging Kelly meant risking heartbreak like Neubauer’s.

What she couldn’t have known — nobody did, until the final weeks of the race — was that Karofsky vs. Kelly would hit the national radar in a major way. It wasn’t just the politics in play, though the race was viewed as a bellwether for the November presidential election, with Wisconsin seen as a critical swing state.

What turned a state Supreme Court race into a sizzling story for front pages and cable news was COVID-19 and a battle between Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans in the state Legislature over how and when the election should be conducted.

Jill Karofsky in front of wisconsin seal

Photo by John Ficenec

When the dust finally settled on April 13 — nearly a week after election day — Jill Karofsky had won. She officially assumes her Supreme Court seat Aug. 1, two weeks after turning 54.

Due to the coronavirus and Evers’ Safer at Home order, there was no victory party other than an impromptu physically distant party in Karofsky’s west side neighborhood. Karofsky, home with her teenage son and daughter, ordered dinner delivered and did some digital interviews. Then she and the kids celebrated until 2 a.m.

“I couldn’t imagine a better election night,” Karofsky says, “than spending it with Daphne and Danny. It ended up being one of the most special nights of my life.”

She’d had a front-row seat on previous election nights. Karofsky’s mom, Judy Karofsky, was elected mayor of Middleton in 1975. Jill was 8.

“She followed me everywhere,” Judy Karofsky says. “We have a film of it, this little kid, long hair, going door to door.”

Judy lost her bid for reelection in 1977, which did not diminish her in the eyes of her daughter.

“I was so proud of my mom,” Jill says. “She brought emergency medical service into Middleton. She brought buses into Middleton.”

Jill was so impressed that at age 10 she changed her middle name to honor her mother. She’s now Jill Judith Karofsky.

“My brother’s middle name was Peter, after my dad,” Karofsky says. “I didn’t understand why I wouldn’t be named after my mom. So I hired my own lawyer, marched into a courtroom — Judge [William] Eich presiding — and I changed my middle name.”

By high school, people knew Karofsky’s name. She was a state doubles tennis champion as a junior at Middleton High School.

Karofsky attended Duke University, where she was a varsity distance runner — a passion that endures today — and then returned to Wisconsin for graduate school, earning both a master’s and law degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Karofsky spent a decade as a prosecutor in the Dane County district attorney’s office, worked for the National Conference of Bar Examiners, taught at the UW Law School, served as executive director of the Office of Crime Victim Services for the Wisconsin Department of Justice and was the first Violence Against Women resource prosecutor in the state DOJ. She was elected a Dane County circuit court judge in 2017.

In April 2019, when Karofsky sent the five-word text to her mom about beating Dan Kelly, Judy answered:

“Can you beat Ed Fallone?”

Fallone was a Marquette University law professor who had already announced his candidacy for Kelly’s seat. Karofsky and Kelly emerged from the three-way February primary, and the two prepared to face off in the Supreme Court general election in April.

Karofsky was not surprised when the race turned nasty.

Jill Karofsky in her running gear

Photo by John Ficenec

“I said on the night of the primary they would throw so much mud at me I would be unrecognizable,” she says. “The Kelly campaign spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads that were complete lies about me.”

Particularly egregious: a spot that blamed Karofsky for a soft sexual assault sentence she had nothing to do with. “I appeared on the case 16 months after the plea and sentencing,” she says.

Still, two weeks out, her campaign saw poll numbers that suggested a tight race. That was encouraging. But then came the COVID-19-inspired controversy about whether the election might be postponed or done entirely by mail. Republicans wanted it to go on as scheduled and won last-minute decisions from the Wisconsin and United States supreme courts.

Karofsky was aghast. “We put people in the position of choosing their safety or their right to vote.”

On election day, many who had requested absentee ballots had yet to receive them. “My daughter and I fielded many calls and texts from people asking what to do,” Karofsky says. “After a few hours of it, she started to cry. We said if you think it’s safe, go to the polls. The people rose up. The pictures [of the lines] in Milwaukee were incredible.”

In the end, it wasn’t close. Karofsky won by a little more than 10 percentage points.

It’s a 10-year term, and Karofsky, the long-distance runner, hopes to start it in style. She’s entered the Badger 100 race on Aug. 1 that has a turnaround at the 35-mile mark at Dot’s Tavern in Basco.

“Justice [Rebecca] Dallet has agreed to meet there,” Karofsky says, “and swear me in.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.