A Republican-backed constitutional amendment to change the way Wisconsin's Supreme Court chief justice is selected passed the state Senate on a party-line vote Tuesday.
The Assembly is set to take up the bill on Thursday. If it passes, it will go before voters on the April 7 spring ballot.
The proposal has been characterized by Democrats as a politically motivated attack on Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a liberal justice who has held the position for 18 years.
Under existing rules, the longest-serving justice on the court holds the chief justice position. The amendment would allow the chief justice to be chosen by the court's seven members.
Supporters say the proposal would increase efficiency and effectiveness, putting Wisconsin on the same page as 22 other states whose chief justices are selected by their peers.
The bill's author, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said it's not aimed at any individual. Sen. Van Wangaard, R-Racine, criticized Democrats for making it a "personal issue."
The Republican senators who spoke in support of the bill said they hold no assumptions that Abrahamson would lose her post if the amendment is approved by voters.
It has been suggested, though, that the court's conservative majority would replace Abrahamson with Justice Patience Roggensack.
"This creates a popularity contest among justices," said Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee.
Democrats said the proposal doesn't do enough to address issues that could arise if a chief justice died while in office, suggesting the language may need changes down the road.
Democrats also denounced the Senate for taking up a resolution not related to jobs, worker training or other issues that directly affect constituents as its first proposal of the session.
Tiffany said he first heard concerns from constituents regarding the operation of the Supreme Court after a 2011 incident in which Justice David Prosser allegedly put his hands around the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley during an argument. The senator said he then became more attuned to court issues.
Tiffany referred to the incident as a "dust-up," drawing the ire of some on the other side of the aisle.
"The senator from the 12th referred to a 'dust-up,'" said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunaukee. "It was accusations of a male justice choking a female justice. A constitutional amendment won't fix that. Counseling might, but a constitutional amendment won't fix that."
He and his fellow Democrats said they had no choice but to interpret the proposal as a personal attack on Abrahamson, especially given the existence of an Assembly proposal to establish a mandatory retirement age of 75 for justices. Abrahamson is 81.
Tiffany said there is no effort to deny anyone his or her position.
"This is not about the current chief justice," Tiffany said. "This constitutional amendment, when I introduced it in the previous session, was all about passing a provision that will stand the test of time. I believe this is the most appropriate way for our chief justice to be named."
Tiffany reminded his colleagues that voters will ultimately decide whether the state constitution is amended, and the Supreme Court justices will have the final say on who leads them.
Democrats introduced, but failed to pass, an amendment that would move the ballot question to the November election, citing low voter turnout in spring elections. Tiffany argued that constitutional amendments have been put to vote in April elections nearly 100 times, including the amendment implementing a seniority-based chief justice.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, referred to the measure as a "power grab" designed to give the GOP control over another branch of government. In doing so, she said, the Legislature was asserting itself as "a little more equal" than the co-equal judiciary.
"We're playing in somebody else's sandbox we have no business being in," Erpenbach said. "This is big, big government. This is overstepping our bounds. We shouldn't be doing this."
If the amendment makes it to the April 7 ballot, it will be voted on in the same election in which Bradley will be challenged by Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley.
Daley supports the amendment; Bradley does not. Bradley said in an interview on "Upfront with Mike Gousha" she believes its goal is to settle a political score.