U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other officials on Tuesday honored retiring Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson as a courageous member of the judiciary who defended fair courts and inspired countless women in the law.
The remarks from Ginsburg and others, including Gov. Tony Evers and former Gov. Jim Doyle, as well as former Wisconsin Supreme Court justices Diane Sykes and Janine Geske, come as the sun sets on Abrahamson’s nearly 43 years on the court.
Abrahamson, supported by liberals, will be replaced by the conservative-backed Brian Hagedorn on Aug. 1. She served as chief justice of the court from 1996 until 2015 and her work in the legal profession has been recognized across the globe.
Abrahamson was the first woman to sit on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, appointed by Gov. Patrick Lucey in 1976. It’s a fact Ginsburg, the second female justice to be confirmed to the nation’s highest court, highlighted in the remarks she delivered via a videotaped message.
“Justice Abrahamson has contributed enormously to the advancement of women’s opportunities and well-being in the legal profession,” Ginsburg said.
She added that she’s known Abrahamson since the two were young, and described her as “the very best, the most courageous and sage, the least self-regarding.”
“She has been ever mindful of the people, all of the people, law exists, or should exist, to serve,” Ginsburg said. “As lawyer, law teacher and judge, she has inspired legions to follow in her way to strive constantly to make the legal system genuinely equal and accessible to all who dwell in our fair land.”
Political observers point to Abrahamson as one reason Wisconsin has one of the highest percentages of women on its Supreme Court in the nation.
Ginsburg’s remarks were preceded by those of several prominent current and former politicians and judges.
Diane Sykes, a conservative-backed justice who now serves on the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, lauded Abrahamson, who is no darling of conservatives, for her legal scholarship and connection with the real world.
Abrahamson’s scholarship even put her on the short list of candidates former President Bill Clinton considered appointing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sykes noted Abrahamson reinvigorated state constitutional law and was a fierce defender of her legal philosophy against the textualism many conservative-supported justices adhere to today.
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Sykes admitted the two have had their share of disagreements, but that “the strength of her work always made mine better.”
Some conservatives have criticized Abrahamson for presiding over a court where relations between the justices were frayed. More recently, Hagedorn accused her of having her “thumb on the scale.”
Abrahamson has sharply dissented on several cases that benefited former Republican Gov. Scott Walker or conservatives in past years.
Abrahamson’s time as chief justice ended in 2015 after Wisconsin voters approved a Republican-backed constitutional amendment giving justices the power to elect the chief justice. Conservative-backed members of the court removed Abrahamson hours after the election that year and chose current Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.
Abrahamson sued over the action but was unsuccessful.
Despite being blamed by some conservatives for contributing to the growing partisanship on the state’s highest court, Abrahamson in her brief remarks Tuesday emphasized judicial independence.
“From the day I took the oath of office, I believed in the concept of an independent judiciary,” Abrahamson said. “I still believe in it. Too much is at stake not to believe in an independent judiciary.”
Two Democratic governors — Doyle and Evers — highlighted her dedication to a fair application of the law.
Doyle’s father hired Abrahamson to work at his law firm in 1962. She practiced law for 14 years before joining the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Doyle praised Abrahamson for her intelligence, writing, work ethic and advocacy for open government. He lauded her for giving everyone before the court a fair shake.
“She believes to the very core that the courts of this state are not a place where the wealthy and powerful can exert their power over those with less power and less authority,” Doyle said.
Evers touted Abrahamson’s devotion to defending the country’s legal and judicial institutions and for inspiring women.
Abrahamson last year announced her retirement from the court, when she also disclosed that she is battling cancer.