Shirley Abrahamson

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Shirley Abrahamson
Court Information:
Wisconsin Supreme Court
Title:   Chief justice
Salary:  $154,000
Appointed by:   Gov. Patrick Lucey
Active:   1976-2019
Chief:   1996-Present
Past post:   Attorney in private practice
Personal History
Born:   12/17/1933
Hometown:   New York City, NY
Party:   Democratic
Undergraduate:   New York University, 1953
Law School:   Indiana University, 1956
Grad. School:   University of Wisconsin Law School, 1962

Shirley S. Abrahamson is the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She was initially appointed by Democratic Governor Patrick Lucey in 1976, and was subsequently elected to ten-year terms in 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009. Her current term ends in 2019. She became chief justice on August 1, 1996.[1]

Abrahamson was the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.[2]

On April 10, 2013, after 36 years, seven months and four days on the court, Abrahamson became the longest-serving supreme court justice in Wisconsin. The previous record-holder was Orsamus Cole, who served from 1855 to 1892.[1] She is currently the second-longest serving state chief justice behind Gerald VandeWalle of the North Dakota Supreme Court, who began serving as chief in 1993.[3]

Abrahamson gained attention in April 2015 for filing a federal lawsuit attempting to block an approved constitutional amendment changing chief justice selection. To learn more about this story, click here.

Judicial philosophy

Abrahamson is an advocate of judicial independence. Her essay "Judicial Independence as a Campaign Platform" articulates the debate as such:
"Many judicial candidates are choosing not to exercise their First Amendment rights fully because they are concerned they may tarnish the public's perception of fairness and impartiality, and may disqualify themselves from sitting on cases....In any judicial selection system, the best way to ensure judicial independence is to develop the public's understanding of, and respect for, the concept of judicial independence....Judicial independence means that judges decide cases fairly and impartially, relying only on the facts and the law...There are two types of judicial independence: decisional independence and institutional independence (sometimes called branch independence). Decisional independence refers to a judge's ability to render decisions free from political or popular influence; decisions should be based solely upon the facts of the individual case and the applicable law. Institutional independence describes the judicial branch as a separate and co-equal branch of government with the executive and legislative branches."[4]

Political ideology

See also: Political ideology of State Supreme Court Justices

In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan ideology of state supreme court justices in their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 are more liberal. Abrahamson received a Campaign finance score (CFscore) of -1.29, indicating a liberal ideological leaning. This is more liberal than the average CF score of 0.42 that justices received in Wisconsin. The study is based on data from campaign contributions by judges themselves, the partisan leaning of contributors to the judges or, in the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature). This study is not a definitive label of a justice, but an academic gauge of various factors.[5]

New Federalism

Abrahamson has also advocated expanded civil liberties in the states via "New Federalism." New Federalism suggests that state supreme courts should feel free to interpret state constitutional provisions differently than the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the federal constitution, especially regarding the rights of criminal defendants. In an article, Chief Justice Abrahamson defined it this way:

"In judicial jargon, new federalism describes a growing awareness in the state courts of the importance of state law, especially state constitutional law, as the basis for protection of individual rights against state government. It also describes the willingness of state courts to assert themselves as the final arbiters in questions of citizens’ individual rights by relying on their own state law, especially the state constitution." Abrahamson, 19 Hum Rts. at 26[6]

Critics claim that expanded Federalism is a way to protect judges in the state courts who practice judicial activism in hopes that the Supreme Court of the United States or a Federal Court of Appeals does not overturn their rulings.[6]

Impact of chief justice amendment

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

The Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Amendment, also known as Question 1, was on the April 7, 2015 ballot in Wisconsin as a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment, where it was approved. The measure provided for the election of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice by a majority of the justices serving on the court. The chief justice chosen by the court would serve a two-year term.[7]

Before Question 1's passage, the Wisconsin Constitution mandated that the chief justice be appointed based on seniority from the pool of seven justices sitting on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, at the time, had served as the court's chief justice since 1996. She was considered a liberal, but the court majority was considered conservative, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.[8]

Opponents argued that the amendment was a political attack on Chief Justice Abrahamson and that the seniority method was more democratic because it allowed the justice who had been elected by voters the most times to be chief justice, while supporters contended the majority-vote system was more democratic because the justices would decide who would be the head of the court, thereby decreasing conflict among the justices.[9]

Federal lawsuit by Abrahamson

Abrahamson, along with five registered voters, filed a federal lawsuit on April 8, 2015, seeking to block implementation of an approved amendment to the state constitution that would change how the chief justice is selected. The amendment approved on April 7 changes chief justice selection from a seniority system to a process where justices choose a chief for a two-year term. The lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court for Western Wisconsin argues that Abrahamson's right to due process and equal protection are abridged by the amendment. Her filing seeks to block application of the amendment until her current term expires in 2019 or she leaves office prior to that year. Abrahamson filed the suit against the six members of the court, Secretary of State Doug La Follette (D) and State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk (R).[10][11]

The filed complaint states:

Should the new method of selecting a chief justice be put into immediate effect before the expiration of Chief Justice Abrahamson’s current term and a new chief justice selected, the term of the current, elected chief justice will be disrupted, her constitutionally protected interest in the office of chief justice will be impaired, the votes of her supporters will be diluted and the results of the 2009 election undone long after-the-fact, while the Wisconsin court system’s leadership will become unsettled. The retroactive application of the new amendment raises profound issues of Due Process and Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.[12]

Shirley Abrahamson et al. v. Department of Administration[13]

The five registered state voter plaintiffs all listed the following as their complaint:

The challenged amendment if construed as applicable to Chief Justice Abrahamson and given retroactive effect dilutes the value of his vote and upsets his settled expectations by limiting the term of the candidate he successfully supported in the 2009 election.[12]

Shirley Abrahamson et al. v. Department of Administration[13]

Abrahamson, who has served as chief justice since 1996, also sought a restraining order against her fellow justices preventing a vote to remove her as chief. Judge James Peterson rejected the request for a temporary restraining order on April 9, opting to wait until a hearing on April 21 to evaluate Abrahamson's filing in light of testimony from defendants.[14][15] Abrahamson and other plaintiffs did not contact the defendants about the restraining order application prior to the filing, which is a requirement of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) Rule 65.[16]

Brandon Scholz, an organizer of the pro-amendment group Vote Yes for Democracy, made the following statement in response to the lawsuit:

I find it surprising that someone who has served as long as Justice Abrahamson has, for what would appear to be self-serving reasons, files the lawsuit in federal court against the will of the people [12]

Wisconsin State Journal, (2015)[11]

Both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Beloit Daily News called on Abrahamson to drop the lawsuit.[17][18] The Capital Times editorial board, on the other hand, backed Abrahamson's lawsuit.[19]

On April 14, 2015, members of Citizens for Responsible Government, a conservative group, asked the court to allow them to intervene in the case. They want to argue against the validity of Abrahamson's lawsuit and seek to have the case thrown out. David Rivkin, an attorney for those asking to intervene, contended, "The office of chief justice of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin is not Justice Abrahamson's personal property. It belongs to the people of Wisconsin, and their will is clear."[20]


Abrahamson received her B.A. from New York University in 1953 and her J.D. from Indiana University in 1956. In 1962, she earned her Doctorate of Law in American legal history from the University of Wisconsin Law School.[21]


After graduating from law school, Abrahamson went into private practice for 14 years. During this time, she was also a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Abrahamson was appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1976 and became chief justice in 1996.[2]

Awards and associations


  • 2010: John Marshall Award, American Bar Association[22]
  • 2009: Harry L. Carrico Award for Judicial Innovation, National Center for State Courts
  • 2004: Dwight D. Opperman Award for Judicial Excellence, American Judicature Society
  • Honorary Doctor of Laws degrees, 15 universities
  • Distinguished Alumni Award, Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison


  • Fellow, Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Elected member, American Philosophical Society
  • Member, Council of the American Law Institute
  • Member, New York University School of Law Institute of Judicial Administration
  • Past president, National Conference of Chief Justices
  • Past chair, Board of Directors, National Center for State Courts[23]
  • Past chair, National Institute of Justice's National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence
  • Past member, State Bar of Wisconsin's Commission on the Delivery of Legal Services
  • Past member, Coalition for Justice, American Bar Association
  • Past member, Science, Technology and Law panel, National Academy[2]

Notable cases

Abrahamson dissents on cases concerning the use of cell phone tracking

     Wisconsin Supreme Court (State v. Subdiaz-Osorio, State v. Tate)

In July 2014, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on two similar cases regarding the constitutionality of using cell phones to track individuals. In both cases, police tracked the cell phones of suspected murderers.

In the case of Nicolas Subdiaz-Osorio, who killed his brother and then attempted to flee to Mexico, police tracked him down in Arkansas with the help of the cell phone provider Sprint Nextel without obtaining a warrant. The Kenosha County Circuit Court denied Subdiaz-Orsorio's motion to suppress evidence, after which he pled guilty to first-degree reckless homicide. An appeals court upheld the conviction, and on July 24, the supreme court did as well. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson was the only to dissent with the majority ruling. She noted that citizens have a right to privacy, and that the "State failed to demonstrate that any of the three purported circumstances advanced by Justice Prosser’s lead opinion – threat to safety, risk of destruction of evidence, and increased likelihood of flight – existed with sufficient urgency to justify the privacy violation in the instant case."[24]

In the second case, police used cell phone date to track down Bobby Tate, who was a murder suspect. Police did received a warrant, and quickly located him. A circuit court denied his motion to suppress evidence, which he filed on claims that there was not sufficient probable cause for the warrant, and that the warrant did not specify a specific location to be searched. Again an appeals court upheld the conviction of the circuit court. A 5-2 majority of the state supreme court agreed with the lower courts. Abrahamson again dissented, this time joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. Abrahamson said the majority opinion avoided the core issue of whether the government's use of cell phone location data is a "search". "Rather than dance around the issue … I propose that the court address it head-on," she said.[25]


For more information see Wisconsin Supreme Court elections.


Abrahamson was re-elected to her fourth term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on April 7, 2009. With that election's victory, Abrahamson became the longest serving justice in the in the 162-year history of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It also makes her only the second justice in Wisconsin history to ever win election to the court four times.[26]

For a list of Abrahamson's campaign contributions, visit Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Candidate IncumbentElection %
Shirley Abrahamson ApprovedA Yes59.6%
Randy Koschnick No40.2%


Abrahamson contributions questioned

On February 12, 2009, the Associated Press reported that Justice Abrahamson had received more than $30,000 since August 2008 from attorneys with cases pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In one medical malpractice case, three attorneys representing the plaintiffs donated $11,500 to the Abrahamson campaign.[28]

Abrahamson explained her position on the matter, stating that it was better to accept small donations from a variety of donors than large amounts from a few organizations or individuals. Furthermore, she said that any lawyer who questioned the donations could file a motion to have her step aside in a case, though none did.[28]

In the news

Justice and representative discuss potential legislation limiting judicial service (2015)

On March 22, 2015, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson testified before the Wisconsin Legislature's Joint Finance Committee about the judiciary budget for the 2015 fiscal year. Representative Dean Knudson is a member of that committee and has publicly acknowledged that he wishes to submit a bill to the Legislature mandating a retirement age for all judges in the state. It is widely speculated, as well, that the potential legislation, in conjunction with the constitutional amendment restructuring how the supreme court chief justice is selected that will be before voters on April 7, 2015, is an attempt by conservative members of the Legislature to oust Chief Justice Abrahamson—or at the very least, curtail her influence and power on the court. So, when the chief justice and the representative faced one another to discuss the judiciary budget, it is hardly surprising that Knudson's suggested bill was mentioned.

Knudson pointed out that a 1977 amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution said that the Legislature "shall" set a mandatory retirement age for judges in the state; it is a constitutional obligation. Abrahamson volleyed back that the Legislature has yet to do so. Knudson further indicated that well over half of the states have mandatory judicial retirement ages. A transcript of the exchange between Abrahamson and Knudson, which was polite, can be found here.

Thirty-three states have mandatory retirement ages; of those, 10 are considering doing away with the mandate.


Recent news

This section displays the most recent stories in a Google news search for the terms "Shirley Abrahamson Wisconsin Supreme Court."

Some of the stories below may not be relevant to this page due to the nature of Google's news search engine.

Shirley Abrahamson - Google News Feed

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See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wisconsin Court System, "Chief Justice Abrahamson becomes longest-serving justice in Wisconsin history," April 11, 2013
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Wisconsin Court System, "Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson"
  3. University of North Dakota School of Law, "Chief Justice VandeWalle, Class of '58, Running for Another 10-year Term," August 2014
  4. Washington State Bar Association, "Judicial Independence as a Campaign Platform," March 5, 2005
  5. Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
  6. 6.0 6.1, "CJ Abrahamson and Expansive Rights for Criminal Defendants," December 27, 2008
  7. Wisconsin Legislature, "2013 Senate Joint Resolution 57," accessed May 8, 2014
  8. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Constitutional amendment would let court select chief justice," October 29, 2013
  9. Hudson Star-Observer, "Supreme Court governance issue inches toward April ballot; state's housing market nearly recovered; 12 more Wisconsin stories," January 20, 2015
  10. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Abrahamson sues to keep her job for four more years," April 8, 2015
  11. 11.0 11.1 Wisconsin State Journal, "Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson sues over amendment approved by voters," April 8, 2015
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  13. 13.0 13.1 United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, "Shirley Abrahamson et al. v. Department of Administration," April 8, 2015
  14. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Judge declines to immediately halt chief justice amendment," April 9, 2015
  16. Election Law Blog, "Federal Court to WI Chief Justice Abrahamson: Follow Federal Rules for TROs," April 10, 2015
  17. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson should drop her lawsuit," April 14, 2015
  18. Beloit Daily News, "Accept the will of state’s voters," April 13, 2015
  19. The Capital Times, "Chief Justice Abrahamson is right to seek clarification of conflict," April 15, 2015
  20. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Conservative group seeks to intervene in chief justice case," April 13, 2015
  21. Project Vote Smart, "Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson (WI)"
  22. Wisconsin Court System, "Chief Justice Abrahamson honored with 2010 John Marshall Award," August 12, 2010
  23. National Center for State Courts, "Wisconsin’s Chief Justice Named Chair-Elect of National Court Reform Organization," October 15, 2003
  24. Wisconsin State Bar Association, "Deeply Divided Court Rules in Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking Case," August 29, 2014
  25. Wisconsin Bar Association, "Warrant to Track Suspect’s Cell Phone Met Constitutional Requirements," September 9, 2014
  26. NBC 15, "UPDATE: Influential Wisconsin Justice Wins Re-election," April 7, 2009
  27. Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "Results of Spring General Election," April 7, 2009
  28. 28.0 28.1 The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Abrahamson won't return donations from lawyers," February 24, 2009