Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the first woman to serve on the state’s highest court, said Wednesday she will not seek re-election next year.
In a statement, Abrahamson said the decision not to seek a fifth 10-year term was best for her and for the state.
“It is a difficult decision,” Abrahamson said. “But in that regard, it is like many of the decisions in cases I have helped decide over four decades on the court — most often, good arguments on both sides, difficult choices, important questions.”
The decision creates an open seat for what was already shaping up to be another hard-fought court election between liberals and conservatives.
State appeals court Judge Brian Hagedorn, former chief legal counsel to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, told the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this month that he might run. Shortly after Abrahamson’s announcement, Second District Appeals Court Chief Judge Lisa Neubauer, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, also said she was considering a run.
Conservatives hold a 4-3 majority on the court after liberal-backed Rebecca Dallet defeated conservative-backed Michael Screnock in the spring election to replace conservative Justice Michael Gableman. When Dallet is sworn in later this summer, six of the seven justices on the court will be women.
Abrahamson, 84, who was appointed to the court in 1976 by Gov. Patrick Lucey, won four 10-year terms between 1979 and 2009, each time by double-digit margins. She served as chief justice from 1996 until 2015, when a system for selecting chief justices based on seniority was replaced with a majority vote of the court.
Doyle, whose father hired Abrahamson for her first job at a law firm at a time when women faced difficulty breaking into the legal profession, called her “one of those real leaders who opened up a profession for women.”
Doyle credited Abrahamson as a staunch advocate for enforcing civil rights and liberties in Wisconsin and other states, a defender of open government and a pioneer of holding court hearings across the state. She was on the short list for U.S. Supreme Court under both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Doyle said.
“She just humanized the Supreme Court in many ways,” Doyle said.
A New York native (with the accent to prove it), Abrahamson graduated from Indiana University Law School in 1956. She came to Madison with her husband Seymour, an internationally regarded geneticist who joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1961. Seymour Abrahamson died in 2016.
She earned a doctor of juridical science, the highest law degree, from UW-Madison in 1962, and 15 honorary degrees from universities across the country.
Abrahamson has suffered from health problems in recent years, missing or participating remotely in several court hearings. Her statement didn’t address her health, but said her decision was based “on a variety of reasons.”
Lester Pines, a liberal Madison lawyer who has argued cases before the Supreme Court through much of Abrahamson’s 42-year tenure, called her “one of the most brilliant jurists to have ever served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”
Pines said Abrahamson’s legacy is in her body of work, not a single landmark decision. He said she has been a trailblazer in the same league as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
“The hallmarks of her tenure as a justice and chief justice are extraordinary attention to the details of every case that comes before her and an exceptional level of detailed legal analysis of the issues in every case,” Pines said. “Her legal acumen is extraordinary.”
Dissent in key
As a member of the court’s liberal minority, she has dissented on many key cases during the Walker era, including a challenge to his signature 2011 Act 10 law, which curtailed the power of public sector unions, and a decision that ended a secret John Doe investigation into Walker’s recall campaign.
In 2015 voters approved a constitutional amendment altering the 126-year practice of the chief justice being the most senior member of the bench. Abrahamson sued to retain her position as chief justice through the end of her term, but the lawsuit was dismissed and she dropped her appeal in November 2015.
Chief Justice Pat Roggensack cited Abrahamson by name during a lecture at Marquette Law School last year in which she warned of “a rising challenge to the institutional legitimacy of our courts, both state and federal.” She specifically chastised critics, including Abrahamson, for “tough talk” that questioned the legitimacy of the court’s legal opinions.
Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said though he often disagrees philosophically with Abrahamson, “she was an effective champion of her particular view.”
“I do think that sometimes there has been sharp language in dissent, and that’s not always wrong,” Esenberg said.
Esenberg said it would have been interesting to see a conservative challenge Abrahamson — a previously elected justice has only been defeated twice in state history — but her retirement means the seat is much more in play.
Will serve out term
Abrahamson said her intention is to serve out the remainder of her term, which ends July 31, 2019. At that point she will have served for 43 years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, longer than any of the 77 justices who have held the position.
“Until then, and as I have done for my entire judicial career, I will continue to express my point of view,” she said. “I will do so on the bench. 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.”