MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) - A federal judge has rejected a request by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson to temporarily block her fellow justices from replacing her as chief justice.
On Tuesday, Judge James Peterson, for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, denied Abrahamson’s motion for a preliminary injunction.
“Plaintiffs rely chiefly on the notion that any deprivation of their constitutional rights is an irreparable harm,” Peterson wrote in his seven-page order. “But in this framework, the balance of harms is neutral. Each plaintiff in this case has a mirror-image counterpart who would suffer essentially the same constitutional deprivation if the court wrongly issued an injunction.
“Opposite the former chief justice is the newly elected chief justice, and opposite plaintiff voters are other voters, who supported the 2015 amendment and have an interest in its implementation.”
He continued, “Plaintiffs have not documented any actual harm that would befall the court system without an injunction. They have not shown, for example, that the new chief justice is unable to perform the duties of the position or that she will institute damaging and irreversible change. In fact, it appears that the newly elected chief justice is working to make the transition as smooth as possible.”
Last month, Wisconsin voters adopted a new constitutional amendment that changes the method by which the high court’s chief justice is selected.
Under the amendment -- adopted by voters April 7 and certified by the state’s non-partisan Government Accountability Board April 29 -- members of the court now elect the chief justice, bringing it in line with the majority of states. Previously, selection was based on seniority.
Abrahamson, who held the title of chief justice since 1996, sued in the days following the statewide vote.
In her lawsuit, Abrahamson argues she will be “disrupted,” her interest in the office will be “impaired” and the votes of her supporters will be “diluted” if she is immediately replaced. She also argues that retroactive application of the new amendment raises “profound issues” of due process and equal protection.
In addition, as a justice, she now earns $8,000 less a year.
Abrahamson served as the high court’s chief justice until late last month, when Justice Patience Roggensack was selected as the new head of the court.
Abrahamson, along with justices N. Patrick Crooks and Ann Walsh Bradley, objected to the vote.
Peterson, who held a hearing on the matter Friday, said with the “balance of harms” neutral, the critical factor in the case is the public interest.
However, no preliminary injunction that the court could issue would “facilitate the orderly administration of the Wisconsin Supreme Court or the state court system,” he said.
“And although plaintiffs allege that there is uncertainty and confusion about who is currently serving as chief justice, they do not provide any particular details or concrete examples of that confusion,” the federal judge wrote.
“Even taking plaintiffs at their word, preliminary injunction pending resolution of the merits would do nothing to reduce uncertainty about who will serve as Wisconsin’s chief justice for the next several years.”
Peterson’s decision comes days after Crooks sent a letter to the federal judge, asking him to use his authority to devise and implement a transitional plan, calling the court’s current situation “one of uncertainty and turmoil.”
Bradley submitted a separate affidavit in support of an injunction that would “maintain the status quo” with Abrahamson still leading the court.
State officials who are named defendants in the case have asked Peterson to dismiss the lawsuit.
Peterson said in his order this week that a “prompt decision on the merits” will be made in the case. He did not set a trial date, noting that “it appears that this case can be resolved on the papers.”
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.