Judicial selection in Wisconsin

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Judicial selection in the states
Judicial selection in Wisconsin
Seal of Wisconsin.png
Wisconsin Supreme Court
Method:   Nonpartisan election of judges
Term:   10 years
Wisconsin Court of Appeals
Method:   Nonpartisan election of judges
Term:   6 years
Wisconsin Circuit Courts
Method:   Nonpartisan election of judges
Term:   6 years

Selection of state court judges in Wisconsin occurs exclusively through nonpartisan elections. At the end of each judge's term, he or she must run for re-election to continue serving.[1]

With judicial elections held in April, judges' terms begin on August 1 following their election.[2]

Selection process

See also: Nonpartisan election of judges

The seven justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, 16 judges of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and 241 judges of the Wisconsin Circuit Courts are selected in an identical manner. They are chosen by the people in statewide nonpartisan elections, after which supreme court justices serve 10-year terms and the others serve six-year terms. All judges must run for re-election if they wish to continue serving after their term expires.[1]

To learn more about these elections, visit the Wisconsin judicial elections page.

Selection of the chief justice or judge

The guidelines for selecting a chief justice or judge for each court differ:

  • The chief justice of the supreme court is chosen by seniority and serves in that capacity indefinitely.
  • The chief judge of the court of appeals is chosen by the supreme court to serve a three-year term.
  • The chief judge of each circuit court is chosen by the supreme court to serve a two-year term.[1]

Background on chief justice selection

See also: Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Amendment, Question 1 (April 2015)

Wisconsin is one of eight states that use the seniority system to select chief justices for their supreme courts. This selection method became part of the Wisconsin Constitution in 1889, when voters opted for seniority over a dedicated seat for the chief justice. The chief justice seat was established by the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1852 and lasted until the 1889 amendment. Wisconsin voters amended the constitution again in 1903 to expand the court to seven members and a 1977 amendment allows the longest-serving justice to decline the chief justice's office.[3]

The next significant effort to change the seniority system came in 1985 with a proposal by state Sen. Gary George to allow justices to elect their chief. George sponsored 1985 Senate Resolution Joint Resolution 80, which called for election of the chief to a four-year term by fellow justices. This proposed amendment did not pass through the senate and the effort was left aside until 2011. Sen. Rich Zipperer and Rep. Tyler August proposed joint resolutions in the senate and assembly, respectively, calling for election of a chief justice following the inauguration of any new justice. Both resolutions failed to pass and August's 2012 resolution also failed to make it out of the state house.[3]

An effort to change chief justice selection from seniority to a vote of fellow justices began with Sen. Tom Tiffany and Rep. Rob Hutton, who proposed joint resolutions in the state senate and assembly in October 2013. Both measures proposed a two-year term for chief justices with a limit of three terms. Sen. Mary Lazich's amendment removed the three-term limit and 2013 Senate Joint Resolution 57 was passed.[3] Amendments referred by the legislature must pass two successive sessions of the legislature, which was achieved when Senate Joint Resolution 2 was passed in January 2015. The measure titled Question 1 will appear on the April 7 ballot.


To serve on the appellate or circuit courts, a judge must be:

  • a qualified elector in the state;
  • a qualified elector of his or her circuit (for circuit judges); and
  • licensed to practice law in the state for at least five years.[1]


See also: Gubernatorial appointment of judges

In the event of a midterm vacancy, the governor appoints a replacement. If the vacancy occurs between December 1 and the spring election, the appointee must stand for election the following spring. If the vacancy occurs earlier, judges stand for re-election during the next spring election in which no other justice or judge from their district is being elected.[1]

The governor solicits recommendations from an Advisory Council on Judicial Selection in making his or her appointments, but is not required to choose one of the suggested appointees.[4][1]

Municipal Courts

See also: Nonpartisan election of judges

Like appellate and circuit judges, judges of the Wisconsin Municipal Courts are chosen in nonpartisan elections. They serve four-year terms that begin on May 1, though local ordinances may override that term length.[5][6] Eligibility requirements vary from court to court, with some municipalities requiring judges to have law degrees, but all judges must participate in a continuing judicial education program.[7]


Selection methods in Wisconsin have undergone several changes since the inception of the judiciary. Below is a timeline noting the various stages, from the most recent to the earliest:

  • 2009: A public financing system was created for judicial elections via SB 40, known as the Impartial Justice Bill.
  • 1977: The Wisconsin Constitution was amended, creating the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and establishing that its judges are to be elected to six-year terms.
  • 1889: A constitutional amendment was passed, establishing that the chief justice of the supreme court is to be determined by seniority.
  • 1853: The Wisconsin Supreme Court was created with its justices to be elected to ten-year terms.
  • 1848: The Wisconsin Circuit Court was created with its judges to be elected to six-year terms.[3]

In the news

Conservative lawmakers propose changes to supreme court

In the lead-up to the election in April 2015, the Republican-dominated Wisconsin State Legislature considered two changes to the state supreme court. One measure changes the way the chief justice of the court is chosen. The new method gives the justices the power to choose a chief for a two-year term. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson has served as chief since 1996 though conservative justices may opt for another chief.

On January 20, the amendment regarding the selection method of the chief justice passed in the Wisconsin State Senate. The vote was along party lines. The Wisconsin State Assembly also passed the amendment later that week, sending the measure to voters via the April 7 ballot.[8][9]

The second suggested change would set a mandatory retirement age for justices, possibly at 75 years of age. This measure could push Abrahamson, who is 81, off the court entirely. Legislators advocating these changes deny that they are targeting Abrahamson. In 1977, voters approved an amendment to the constitution allowing lawmakers to set an age of mandatory retirement, but it was never done. Republican Representative Dean Knudson, who has drafted a version of a bill but has not yet submitted it for consideration, said:

My motivation is solely to uphold the Constitution...This is a duty and obligation of the Legislature that we have not carried through on.[10][11]
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson

In a written statement, Abrahamson said,

To the extent that either enactment affects presently sitting judges and justices, it ignores and overturns the vote of the people. The people elected the members of the judiciary for a fixed term and a set office. The Wisconsin Constitution should not be used to target judges. If the Legislature adopts these proposals, it is frustrating the electorate and injecting the ugliness of partisan politics into the judiciary, a nonpartisan independent branch of government.[10][11]

The law would affect other justices as well; Justice N. Patrick Crooks is 76, Patience Roggensack is 74 and David T. Prosser is 72. Ann Walsh Bradley, who is seeking re-election, is 64 and will turn 75 near the end of her next term if she wins. If Judge James Daley wins, he would turn 75 three years before the end of his term. Bradley also gave a written statement, in which she conveyed concern that the changes would "retroactively nullify the popular vote of the people who elected a chief justice and justices for 10-year terms," if they took effect right away. Daley supports having the justices choose a chief of the court, but does not support an age of mandatory retirement.[10][12] Daley also said he will only serve one term, if elected. This assumes that the Wisconsin Legislature does not pass a mandatory retirement age bill.[13]

Representative Knudson said that he would submit his drafted bill during the 2015 session, but it is "not a priority."[14]

The Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau prepared a brief on mandatory retirement ages for judges that can be found here

Selection of federal judges

United States district court judges, who are selected from each state, go through a different selection process than that of state judges.

The district courts are served by Article III federal judges who are appointed for life, during "good behavior." They are usually first recommended by senators (or members of the House, occasionally). The President of the United States of America nominates judges, who must then be confirmed by the United States Senate in accordance with Article III of the United States Constitution.[15]

Step ApprovedA Candidacy Proceeds DefeatedD Candidacy Halts
1. Recommendation made by Congress member to the President President nominates to Senate Judiciary Committee President declines nomination
2. Senate Judiciary Committee interviews candidate Sends candidate to Senate for confirmation Returns candidate to President, who may re-nominate to committee
3. Senate votes on candidate confirmation Candidate becomes federal judge Candidate does not receive judgeship

See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 American Judicature Society, "Methods of Judicial Selection: Wisconsin," archived October 3, 2014
  2. Wisconsin State Legislature, "Judicial Branch," 2011
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Legislative Reference Bureau, "Constitutional Amendment Given "First Consideration" Approval by the 2013 Wisconsin Legislature," January 2015
  4. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Walker's approach to the judiciary," September 21, 2013
  5. Wisconsin Court System, "Municipal Court Overview," accessed September 26, 2014
  6. Wisconsin State Legislature, "Municipal Court, Sec. 755.02," accessed September 26, 2014
  7. American Judicature Society, "Methods of Judicial Selection: Wisconsin; Limited Jurisdiction Courts," archived October 3, 2014
  8. The Cap Times, "Wisconsin Senate approves Supreme Court chief justice amendment," January 21, 2015
  9. Madison.com, "Wisconsin Assembly passes Supreme Court amendment,"January 22, 2015
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Shirley Abrahamson could be forced out of Supreme Court chief justice role," December 22, 2014
  11. 11.0 11.1 Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  12. WTAQ.com, "GOP lawmakers propose changes to sitting Supreme Court justices," December 22, 2014
  13. Beloit Daily News, "Daley: Opponent follows activist agenda," March 27, 2015
  14. NBC 15, "UPDATE: Judge retirement age bill still in flux," January 8, 2015
  15. US Courts, "FAQ: Federal Judges," accessed March 26, 2015
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