Wisconsin Supreme Court justices moved quickly Wednesday to elect a new chief following certification of a constitutional amendment that ended seniority as the sole determinant, even as a federal lawsuit was pending seeking to delay replacing longtime Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.
Abrahamson objected to the email vote making Justice Patience Roggensack the chief justice, and Abrahamson continues to believe she holds the position, her attorney Robert Peck said in a letter filed with U.S. District Court late Wednesday.
Four justices voted via email to replace Abraham-son with Roggensack as chief justice, Peck said. Roggensack accepted the position, even though Abrahamson and Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Patrick Crooks objected, Peck said in the letter.
Justices Michael Gableman, David Prosser, Annette Ziegler and Roggensack voted to elect Roggensack, Peck said.
Roggensack did not immediately return a message seeking comment. A court spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a call or email seeking comment from other justices.
If the vote stands, Roggensack would take over for Abrahamson, a member of the court since 1976 and chief justice the past 19 years.
Abrahamson, 81, has sued to try to block any change until her court term ends in four years. The next hearing in her lawsuit is May 15. An attorney for Roggensack and four other justices had said they believed once the amendment was certified, there was a vacancy for chief justice that could be filled at any point.
The justices had not said publicly how quickly they would act.
Bradley, who along with Abrahamson forms the two-justice liberal minority on the court, told The Associated Press that any voting to elect a new chief justice was premature.
“The case is currently pending before a federal judge,” Bradley said. “The issue he must decide is whether the constitutional amendment is to be applied retroactively and as a result any vote now appears premature because it’s unclear until we get the judge’s decision whether a vacancy even exists.”
Bradley noted that the judge last week in a hearing had urged restraint, saying the fewer changes in who is chief justice the better.
The move to select a new chief came after the Wisconsin elections board earlier Wednesday certified results of the April 7 election, including the voter-approved amendment on chief justice seniority. The amendment, which gives justices the power to pick who is chief, was widely seen as a move against Abrahamson when legislators approved it for the ballot.
Abrahamson’s attorney said in his letter to the judge that Abrahamson, Bradley and Crooks objected to the email balloting to make Roggensack chief justice, questioning whether it was an appropriate implementation of the new amendment.
“Ordinarily, the Wisconsin Supreme Court would, on an important procedure like this one, agree to a procedure and vote only in person in conference,” Peck wrote. “The court, of course, has no procedure for election of a chief justice.”
Most of the chief justice’s duties are administrative and ceremonial, but the person does serve as the head of the state court system. The chief justice’s vote holds no more sway on the court than any other justice.
The court is nearing the end of its term for the year and most of the work left will occur behind the scenes as justices work on written decisions for cases heard earlier this year.