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Shirley Abrahamson, diagnosed with cancer, won't leave court until term ends

Shirley Abrahamson, diagnosed with cancer, won't leave court until term ends

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Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson revealed Friday she has cancer, but reiterated she won’t leave the bench until her term ends next year.

Abrahamson, 84, announced in May she would not seek re-election in April. She was first appointed to the court in 1976 and then elected to four 10-year terms. She served as chief justice from 1996 until 2015, when the conservative majority voted to replace her after voters approved a constitutional amendment ending the practice of the chief justice being selected by seniority.

Abrahamson’s health had been in question after she participated in several oral arguments and conferences in the last court session by phone. The court’s new session begins next week.

In an open letter to the Wisconsin judiciary, Abrahamson defended her decision to continue serving, writing, “On any day in this state, more than a quarter million people are facing a cancer diagnosis.”

The alternative would be for her to resign and have Gov. Scott Walker appoint a replacement. Abrahamson, one of the three justices backed by liberals on the seven-member court, has sharply dissented on several cases that benefited Walker or his supporters.

Abrahamson noted other justices have participated in court conferences by phone over the years. She said she wrote several majority opinions, thirteen dissenting opinions and five concurring opinions during the last term and participated in “almost every oral argument and conference.”

She noted justices have voted on cases by mail, “even before the advent of email, which the court today uses routinely for its votes on opinions as well as procedural and administrative decisions.”

She also noted former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Shorewood native, participated in court matters after being diagnosed with cancer. Rehnquist became the first justice to die in office in half a century.

“My own participation by phone may well continue on occasion,” Abrahamson wrote. “In the meantime, when I next appear in court, it probably will be in a wheelchair, but I will still have my voice and most of the time, a smile.”

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