WI Civics 101: Voters Change The State Constitution

By Sam Morateck and Jerry Bader

News this week that Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson will not seek another ten year term on the court next year was hardly unexpected; she apparently has been dealing with health issues of late.  But her decision is significant nonetheless. The open seat likely will be hotly contested as conservatives attempt to regain the 5-2 advantage they saw shrink to 4-3 in an April victory by liberal Judge Rebecca Dallet over conservative Judge Michael Screnock. Liberals will want to hold the seat with their eyes on the long term prize of regaining the majority.

Abrahamson’s four-plus decades on the court as a liberal jurist included a long stint as chief justice. That changed in 2015 when voters in Wisconsin approved a constitutional amendment that had justices pick their own chief. In the past, the position was based on seniority; years served on the court. While a Republican led-legislature needed to approve the amendment in two consecutive sessions, the decision ultimately was up to the voters. This basic civic’s fact is apparently lost on far left One Wisconsin Now’s Scot Ross, who engaged in a bit of revisionist history after Abrhamson’s announcement

“Justice Abrahamson was so effective at protecting the rights of Wisconsinites against corporate special interest greed and Republican overreach that the corporate special interests and Republicans changed the state constitution to supplant her as Chief Justice.”

While the move to change how a chief justice would be chosen was criticized as an effort by Republicans to remove Abrahamson from the position(a narrative Ross still clings to), it was voters who decided the issue, by a 53-47 percent margin. It is worth noting that on the same statewide ballot voters that day in 2015 also chose liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, a close ally of Abrahamson, over Rock County judge James Daley 58% to 42%. So the same field of statewide voters that selected a liberal justice over a conservative candidate also approved the constitutional amendment, albeit by a narrower margin. As the Journal-Sentinel put it back then: “Tuesday’s results were conflicting. Conservatives cheered the passage of the amendment, while those on the left hailed the re-election of Bradley.”

Abrahamson engaged in an embarrassing court fight to stop the change, before ultimately giving in. The Journal Sentinel reported that Abrahamson has, “participated in cases by phone in recent weeks for undisclosed medical reasons.”