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Order in the sport: Duke alum sworn in as Wisconsin Supreme Court justice during ultramarathon

As yet another first in a year full of unprecedented events, Jill Karofsky, Trinity ‘88 and newly elected Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, was sworn in in a way that was anything but conventional.

On Aug. 1, Karofsky, a former track and cross country runner at Duke, embarked on a 100-mile ultramarathon through northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Joined by fellow Justice Rebecca Dallet, Karofsky stopped at the 35-mile mark to be officially sworn in as a justice of the state Supreme Court. Thirty-four hours after starting, she completed the ultramarathon in Belleville, Wis.

“It was a mind over matter thing. There are so many metaphors for running, and I used them a lot in the campaign—which was really challenging,” Karofsky said. “Sometimes, all you can do is get to the next aid station, then get to the next aid station after that. If you look at 100 miles starting out, it’s way too much. But if you break things down and just keep going forward, it’s much more manageable.”

Karofsky embodied this marathon mentality during her bid for the state Supreme Court. Almost a year after announcing her candidacy, Karofsky emerged victorious from the hotly contested election by defeating conervative incumbent Dan Kelly by more than 160,000 votes.

In a typical year, Karofsky would have had a formal investiture at the capital prior to beginning her 10-year term on the court. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to arrange a traditional ceremony, so Karofsky opted to be sworn in during the ultramarathon—although she still plans on a more orthodox investiture later

“I thought she would just swear me in during the run and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal,” Karofsky said. But the story exploded, attracting a tremendous amount of media attention nationwide.

At 6 a.m. on Aug. 1, she began the 100-mile trek in Orangeville, Ill. and made the journey north through Wisconsin to Dot’s Tavern, where a small crowd of friends and family greeted her for the swearing-in ceremony. Ninety minutes later, Karofsky left the tavern to tackle the final 65 miles of the race.

As a former Duke cross country and track athlete, Karofsky is no stranger to long-distance running. 

“I started running when I was 10 years old, and interestingly enough, it is tied to another election,” she said. “My mom was mayor of Middleton [Wis.] when I was little. She was elected when I was eight years old and lost her bid for reelection when I was 10 years old, and we started running together shortly after she lost. I found it to be a great way to relieve stress.”

Karofsky, who was also a track runner and a state champion in tennis in high school, continued to run throughout her childhood, but she stumbled upon the Duke cross country team by a stroke of luck. She told The Chronicle that she bumped into a group of women while on a run during Orientation Week.

“‘We’re the Duke cross country team,’ they said,” according to Karofsky. “‘You should come to practice this afternoon.’”

Karofsky said that although she didn’t intend to play a sport in college, she made the decision to attend a practice and didn’t miss another one for four years.

“It was a great way to see all the ACC schools and travel around, and I still keep in touch with my friends from the team. It was just a wonderful, fun experience,” she said.

Karofsky ran track and cross country for the remainder of her time at Duke, completing her first marathon the week of graduation. She has since completed multiple traditional marathons, 50- and 100-mile ultramarathons and the Ironman Triathlon.

Karofsky double majored in political science and Spanish while at the University. She said that she “loved being around so many smart and curious people” and enjoyed being exposed to students from all around the country.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is set to begin hearing oral arguments for this term’s cases this September. Karofsky expressed her excitement about the topics they’ll be tackling in the fall.

“I think that we’re going to hear some cases that are germane to the issues of the day, whether they be COVID or election cases,” she said. “I think those cases will be really, really interesting.”

Over the course of her career, Karofsky hopes to work with her fellow justices to tackle systemic issues such as racial inequality.

“We’re the administrator of the court system for the state of Wisconsin, so I think we need to be looking into things like social justice and racial inequality, and the fact that we have racial disparities in our criminal justice system here in Wisconsin when it comes to the number of people of color who in our prison system and who are going through our court system,” she said.

Despite having finished the campaign process, Karofsky doesn’t plan to stop running any time soon. She is planning to do another 100-mile run in the near future––however, there won’t be the challenge of getting sworn in a third of the way through.

But for Karofsky, 100 miles and a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court isn’t enough.

“My long-range super crazy goal is [to complete] a 200-mile run in Lake Tahoe,” she said. “You have four or five days to finish it, and they’ve got sleep stations. It would be exciting to try and tackle something like that.”

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