Wisconsin Senate passes chief justice amendment

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Associated Press
Wednesday, November 13, 2013

MADISON — The most experienced member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court would no longer automatically serve as chief justice under a measure the state Senate backed Tuesday — a change that would likely oust veteran justice Shirley Abrahamson from her post and undo more than a century of practice in Wisconsin.

Republican backers argue that having the seven justices vote on who they want to be chief justice is preferable to the 124-year-old practice in Wisconsin of having the longest-serving justice take the position. Democratic opponents said the measure was clearly targeted at ousting Abrahamson and the Legislature should not be deciding how the court is led.

"I'm surprised we're not telling the court what color the robes have to be, how long they have to be, and what they're wearing underneath," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.

Republican Sen. Mary Lazich, the only supporter of the amendment to speak, said the issue was about allowing the people to decide what they prefer. There would be a statewide vote on making the change if the Assembly passes the amendment Thursday, as expected, and if the Legislature backs it again next session. A statewide vote couldn't take place until 2015 at the earliest.

The Senate passed it 18-15, with all Republicans in support and all Democrats against.

The amendment comes as divisions among the justices have become more public and the races to join the court have become more partisan, expensive and criticized as hurting the reputations of the justices and the court as a whole.

Conservative justices currently hold a 4-3 majority on the officially nonpartisan court, while Abrahamson, a liberal, continues to serve as chief justice. Abrahamson, 79, has been chief justice for 17 of her 37 years on the court.

Should the amendment ultimately be added to the constitution, conservative justices could vote to remove Abrahamson from her post as chief justice. Abrahamson did not immediately respond to a request for comment made through a court spokesman.

The chief justice serves as the administrative head of the state court system and has a host of ceremonial duties as leader of the court. However, the chief justice has no more official power than any of the other six members of the state's highest court in deciding whether to take up a case or in reaching the actual rulings.

Under the amendment, the chief justice would be selected every two years and there would be no limit on how long they could serve. A provision limiting the chief justice to no more than six years in the post was removed Tuesday by the Senate.

Wisconsin is one of seven states where the most senior justice on the court automatically serves as chief justice, according to the National Center for State Courts.

The most common practice, used in 22 states, is the peer election process that the Wisconsin amendment would adopt. In 12 states, the governor appoints the chief justice and in seven, the position is chosen by voters at the polls. In Indiana, the judicial nominating commission appoints the chief justice and in South Carolina it's done by the Legislature.

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