Supreme Court chief justice sues over amendment

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Associated Press
Wednesday, April 8, 2015

MADISON—Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday to try and hold on to her leadership spot after voters approved a constitutional amendment that was likely to demote her.

For the past 126 years the chief justice position has gone to the most senior member of the Supreme Court. Since 1996, that has been Abrahamson. But the amendment approved by voters on Tuesday would instead allow the seven justices to decide who should be chief.

The liberal Abrahamson was expected to be voted out by the four-justice conservative majority.

Abrahamson argued in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Madison that the change should not be applied until after her current term ends in 2019. She argues that the law should remain as it was in 2009 when she ran for re-election for the duration of her 10-year term.

To have the selection process change immediately would shorten the term of office to which Abrahamson was elected, she argued, and would therefore violate her constitutional rights to due process and equal protection rights.

She also asks the court to block the other six justices on the court from taking any action to remove her as chief justice. Earlier Wednesday, before Abrahamson filed the lawsuit, Justice Pat Roggensack told The Associated Press that she hoped to meet "quite soon" to discuss how to proceed following the amendment's adoption.

Roggensack said her priority was making the court, which has been in the spotlight for high-profile disputes among the justices in recent years, function better. Roggensack is part of the court's four-justice conservative majority.

"We have some repair to do, frankly, with the image of the court and I want to work very hard to get that done," said Roggensack, a member of the court since 2003.

The measure was placed on the ballot by the Republican-controlled Legislature, and opponents said it was a clear attempt to remove Abrahamson, a member of the court since 1976.

Abrahamson, 81, did not return messages for comment on Tuesday or Wednesday. She is both the longest currently serving chief justice and state Supreme Court member in the country.

Republican sponsors of the amendment did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the lawsuit.

There is no doubt that removing Abrahamson was the goal of the amendment, said Janine Geske, a Marquette University law professor and former state Supreme Court justice. Geske, who opposed the amendment, said before the lawsuit was filed that she suspected conservative justices would move quickly to oust Abrahamson.

The chief justice selection amendment doesn't take effect until after the election's results are certified by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board. That is expected to happen at the board's April 29 meeting.

Under the new amendment, the justices have to decide every two years who they want to serve as chief justice. There are no specifics about how that is to be done or when the first decision has to be made.

The chief serves as lead administrator for the state court system, with power to assign judges and justices for cases below the Supreme Court level, designate and assign reserve judges and schedule oral arguments before the high court, among other duties.

Justices are paid $147,403 a year while the chief justice earns $155,403.

Supporters of the change, including the state chamber of commerce, which spent at least $600,000 to get it adopted, argued it's undemocratic to have the position go automatically to the justice with the most experience.

Justice at Stake, a national judicial watchdog group based in Washington, issued a statement following adoption of the amendment saying a "siege of special interest money" and "big money hardball politics" led to its adoption.

The amount spent by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on the race puts pressure on the justices to replace Abrahamson, said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake.

While 22 other states use some sort of similar selection process, changing from one system to another and replacing the current chief justice is unprecedented, said Bill Raftery, an analyst with National Center for State Courts based in Williamsburg, Virginia.

"There's nothing comparable," he said. "This has just not happened before. ... It's exceptional and unique."

Also on Tuesday, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley won re-election to a second term. She and Abrahamson are generally considered the two most liberal justices on the court.

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