Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack cast the deciding vote in her favor to replace longtime Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson in the first-of-its kind action, emails released Thursday to The Associated Press show.
The emails were exchanged on Wednesday, hours after the state elections board certified election results giving justices the ability to choose who will serve as chief justice for the first time.
Voters on April 7 approved the amendment making the switch from the 126-year precedent of having the court’s most senior member serve as chief justice. Republican lawmakers put it on the ballot, arguing it was a more democratic method of selecting the chief justice, while Democratic opponents said it was a political move to oust the liberal Abrahamson.
The four conservative justices moved within hours on Wednesday to replace Abrahamson, even though she has a federal lawsuit pending challenging whether she can be immediately removed from the post. Abrahamson, 81, has been chief justice since 1996 and on the court since 1976. She is the longest-serving chief justice and state Supreme Court member in the country.
The emails show that Abrahamson objected to Justice Michael Gableman making the motions during a closed-door meeting of the seven justices on Tuesday afternoon. In an email sent just before 11 p.m. Tuesday, Abrahamson said that the motions nominating Roggensack and giving 48 hours for justices to vote were out of order because they were not voted on by justices during the meeting.
Roggensack responded with an email Wednesday morning, saying the motions were made and seconded in written and oral form. She said her nomination would be voted on via email.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley responded with an email 35 minutes later, saying any vote would be premature given Abrahamson’s ongoing lawsuit.
Justice Patrick Crooks responded, urging justices to hold off a vote as the judge handling Abrahamson’s lawsuit said last week they should do.
But at 11:18 a.m. Wednesday, about two hours after the elections board certified voters’ adoption of the constitutional amendment, Justice Annette Ziegler voted via email to oust Abrahamson. Gableman and Justice David Prosser followed with yes votes, and Roggensack at 3:04 p.m. cast the deciding fourth vote in her favor.
“I accept the nomination and the second that I be elected to serve the court system as chief justice for a two year term,” Roggensack wrote.
The emails exchanged between the justices were released to AP by Bradley in response to an open-records request.
Abrahamson’s attorney, Robert Peck, filed a letter in federal court on Wednesday saying that Abrahamson objects to the vote ousting her and contends she remains chief justice. Peck said Thursday he did not anticipate making any court filings in the case this week.
Roggensack issued a statement late Thursday afternoon calling herself the chief justice and promising to work with her colleagues. She also pledged to donate her raise — the chief justice makes $8,000 more annually than any other justice — to the Access to Justice Commission, which arranges civil legal services for people who can’t afford them.
The vote is just the latest dispute on the court, where the conservative four-justice majority has clashed both personally and professionally with Abrahamson and Bradley, the two liberal members. Crooks is seen as a swing vote.
The highest-profile conflict came in 2011, when Prosser put his hands on Bradley’s neck during an argument over an opinion upholding Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s law effectively ending collective bargaining for public workers.
Prosser said he was making a defensive move, but charges were brought against him alleging that he violated the judicial ethics code.
Bradley and four other justices recused themselves from the case, leaving the court without a quorum to move forward.