Tags: Wisconsin | Republicans | chief justice | Shirley Abrahamson

Amendment Seen as Shot At Wisconsin's Liberal Chief Justice

Image: Amendment Seen as Shot At Wisconsin's Liberal Chief Justice
Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. (Kristyna Wentz-Graff/MCT/Landov)

By    |   Wednesday, 21 Jan 2015 11:03 AM

There is disorder in the court, the state Supreme Court of Wisconsin, that is, and the flap likely is headed for settlement by voters when a proposed constitutional amendment is added to the April special election ballot.

On the surface, the amendment, which passed the Wisconsin Senate by a 17-14 party line vote, only would change the way the chief justice of the court is chosen. Currently, Talking Points Memo (TPM) notes, the most senior judge on the court automatically becomes chief justice, but if the amendment passes, the chief justice would be chosen by a vote of the judges, as done in 22 other states.

Lurking underneath the amendment drive, though, is what is said by some to be a darker motive — a Republican effort to remove 18-year veteran Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a liberal in a court which counts four conservative and three liberal judges, from the court's top chair. While this would not affect the balance of power on the court, it would be a political slap-down to Abrahamson.

The proposal still needs to pass the State Assembly, in which Democrats are outnumbered by Republicans 63-36, Ballotpedia notes, so the amendment's passage there is considered likely.

Chad Oldfather, law professor at Marquette University, told TPM, "I think everyone understands that if this passes, she's not the chief.

"She has been understood to be a consistently liberal justice, and the way the politics of this state are right now, they've become increasingly hardball in nature. This sort of move is consistent with that."

However, state Republicans deny the amendment is aimed specifically at Abrahamson. Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany told TPM: "This is not about the current chief justice. I believe this is the most appropriate way for our chief justice to be named."

Oldfather told TPM: "The legislators proposing this don't seem to be openly acknowledging as much, but I think it's fairly well understood that they're at least not troubled by the fact that they would unseat as chief justice someone who they probably view as an ideological foe."

It's not the first time contention has roiled the state's top court. In 2011, liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley accused conservative Justice David Prosser of using a chokehold in an attempt to strangle her during an argument, TPM notes. Prosser denied this, claiming she attacked him with her fists and he was merely trying to fend her off.

Also in 2011, Prosser called Abrahamson, the state's first female justice, a "total bitch" during a disagreement and threatened to "destroy" her, Think Progress reports. Prosser admitted doing so.

Bradley will run against Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley in the April 7 election.

Bradley opposes the amendment and Daley, who favors it, told the Green Bay Press Gazette: "I would really love to be the first justice to vote for my next chief."

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There is disorder in the court, the state Supreme Court of Wisconsin, that is, and the flap likely is headed for settlement by voters when a proposed constitutional amendment is added to the April special election ballot.
Wisconsin, Republicans, chief justice, Shirley Abrahamson
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2015-03-21
Wednesday, 21 Jan 2015 11:03 AM
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