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Justice Shirley Abrahamson

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson said she will retire at the end of her term next summer, calling the decision "difficult" and akin to many of the decisions she made on cases on the court with "good arguments on both sides, difficult choices, important questions."

In a statement released by her office Wednesday, Abrahamson did not specify what those questions or arguments were, but said her last day on the court would be July 31, 2019. 

"For a variety of reasons, I have decided not to seek re-election. It is the right decision for me. More importantly, it is the right decision for the state. I will encourage qualified candidates to seek election and to do so in a way that honors the independent and non-partisan tradition of the judicial branch in Wisconsin — though that tradition has been tested too often," she said in the statement.

At 84, Abrahamson is Wisconsin's longest serving Supreme Court justice, serving more than 40 years. She is the first woman to serve on the court, appointed in 1976 by Gov. Pat Lucey, and the first woman to serve as its chief justice.

“Until then, and as I have done for my entire judicial career, I will continue to express my point of view. I will do so on the bench," she said. "And, if principles and values integral to the great state of Wisconsin and its courts continue to be challenged, I will also express my views off the bench, if necessary and as appropriate.”

Abrahamson has been participating in cases over the phone in recent weeks, reportedly because of undisclosed medical issues.  Her husband Seymour, a renowned geneticist, died in 2016. 

A native of New York City, Abrahamson's tenure on the court in recent years has been marked by her dissents as one of its two liberal-leaning members. Her announcement comes in the wake of Justice Rebecca Dallet's debut on the court after easily winning election in April as a left-leaning candidate.

Abrahamson is known as a prodigious and methodical writer and thinker, working in her chambers every day of the week, often for more than 12 hours a day on weekdays. Her opinions typically go through eight to 12 drafts before release, according to staff.

Until she leaves. she said she will not hesitate to continue to use her voice.

"The best expression of appreciation I can give the people who have elected and repeatedly re-elected me is to continue to speak with the clarity, forthrightness and compassion that come from a life I have tried to devote to service and to justice for all," she said. 

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She is beloved by liberals who see her as a bold, crucial voice, but has been derided by former colleagues and conservatives who say she operates as a judicial activist and is hard to work with. 

Abrahamson's time as chief justice from 1996-2015 triggered a Constitutional amendment from conservative colleagues and lawmakers to change the rules of how the court elects its leading justice. After the amendment cleared, Abrahamson's colleagues ousted her from the post.

An aide to current Chief Justice Patience Roggensack said Wednesday that her office was not planning to make a statement about Abrahamson's retirement. 

The news of Abrahamson's retirement clears the field for candidates on both sides of the judicial aisle for the next election, scheduled for April 2, 2019.

Earlier this month, Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge Brian Hagedorn, former chief legal counsel to Gov. Scott Walker, who later appointed him to the seat, said he is considering a bid. 

"Many people are encouraging me to run for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2019. They believe, as I do, that Wisconsin deserves a justice with a steadfast commitment to upholding the constitution, defending the rule of law, protecting the public, and inspiring confidence in our courts through respectful, humble service," Hagedorn said. "As my family and I seriously contemplate this important decision, we look forward to meeting fellow Wisconsinites around our great state."

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.