Wis. voters could change how SC chief justice is selected

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Apr 7, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) - Wisconsin voters on Tuesday will decide how the state Supreme Court selects its chief justice.

Currently, the longest-serving justice heads the high court. Justice Shirley Abrahamson has been chief justice since 1996. She was first elected to the court in 1979, and her current term expires in 2019.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which will be decided by a referendum, would instead have the court select its chief justice.


For those voting Tuesday, a “yes” would mean that the chief justice would be elected for a term of two years by a majority of the court.


The justice who is elected may decline to serve as chief justice or resign the position, but still continue to serve as a justice of the high court.


A “no” vote would maintain the status quo.


In 2013, state lawmakers initially passed a bill that set the stage for this week’s statewide vote.


Republicans supported the bill; Democrats voted against it.


At the time, GOP lawmakers argued that voters should decide, while Democrats argued that Republicans were using the bill as a means of ousting Abrahamson, who is considered by many to be a liberal Democrat.


Wisconsin is one of just a handful of states where the most experienced, or tenured, justice serves as chief justice. In most states, justices vote on who will head the court.


Proponents of the change contend the chief justice would be more accountable and allow justices more say in their court.


“It’s important to have some mechanism to ensure that you have a leader that has the confidence of the members of the court and who is able to lead them in a collaborative and collegial way, which we quite frankly don’t see on our state Supreme Court right now,” Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said in an interview broadcast on WISN-TV Sunday.


Others argue the change is merely a political move.


Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, in a separate interview on WISN-TV Sunday, said while she isn’t opposed to the change, she agrees it’s a ploy to remove Abrahamson from the position.


“And I don’t think we should change our constitution because some people don’t like the current chief justice,” she said.


Polls will be open until 8 p.m., according to the Secretary of State’s website.


From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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