Wisconsin Supreme Court
|Wisconsin Supreme Court|
|Method:||Nonpartisan election of judges|
- 1 Justices
- 2 Judicial selection
- 3 Impact of chief justice amendment
- 4 Jurisdiction
- 5 Elections
- 6 Political outlook
- 7 Ethics
- 8 Notable decisions
- 9 History of the court
- 10 Public funding debate
- 11 Recent news
- 12 See also
- 13 External links
- 14 References
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is the highest appellate court in the state of Wisconsin. Seven justices, selected in nonpartisan elections for 10-year terms, sit on the state's court of last resort. The court has jurisdiction over all other Wisconsin courts and can also hear original actions.
While justices are selected in nonpartisan elections, a party identification is provided if a justice is generally associated with a political party.The current justices of the court are:
|Chief justice Shirley Abrahamson||1976-2019||Gov. Patrick Lucey||Democratic|
|Justice Ann Walsh Bradley||1995-2025||Elected||Democratic|
|Justice N. Patrick Crooks||1996-2016||Elected||Republican|
|Justice Patience Roggensack||2003-2023||Elected||Republican|
|Justice Annette Ziegler||2007-2017||Elected||Republican|
|Justice Michael Gableman||2008 - 2018||Elected||Republican|
|Justice David T. Prosser||1998-2021||Gov. Tommy Thompson||Republican|
The court is composed of seven justices who are elected to ten-year terms in state-wide, nonpartisan elections. Only one justice may be elected in any year. In the event of a vacancy on the court, the governor has the power to appoint an individual to the vacancy, but that justice must then stand for election in the first year where no other justice's term expires.
- Licensed to practice law in Wisconsin for a minimum of five years
- Under the age of 70
For the ballot access and campaign finance requirements for candidates in Wisconsin, see: Ballotpedia's Ballot access requirements for political candidates in Wisconsin.
The justice with the longest continuous service on the court serves as the chief justice, unless that justice declines, in which case the role passes to the next senior justice of the court. Shirley Abrahamson is the current chief justice.
Impact of chief justice amendment
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.
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.
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.
History of amendment
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.. 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.
The last effort to change the seniority system on the court happened 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.
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).
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.||”|
—Shirley Abrahamson et al. v. Department of Administration
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.||”|
—Shirley Abrahamson et al. v. Department of Administration
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. 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.
Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley decided to defend herself in the lawsuit, breaking with her five colleagues. The other five justices will be defended by former Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John, who will be paid $300 an hour by the state, although his contract is capped at $100,000.
On April 21, Judge Peterson declined to block the amendment from going into effect while the lawsuit is pending. He claimed there would be no "irreparable harm" if Abrahamson was temporarily removed from her position. However, he warned the other justices to not replace her too quickly, saying, "The state would be well-served to have as few changes in chief justice as possible."
Peterson set the next date for arguments in the case as May 15, 2015. He hopes to make a ruling by mid-summer.
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 
—Wisconsin State Journal, (2015)
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."
- See also: Judicial selection in Wisconsin
The supreme court has jurisdiction over original actions, appeals from lower courts, and regulation or administration of the practice of law in Wisconsin. Most commonly, the supreme court reviews cases that were appealed from the court of appeals.
Margin of victory analysis
A University of Minnesota analysis of supreme court races in Wisconsin found that incumbents were defeated in only six of 95 re-election campaigns between 1852 and 2011. The following table details the margins of victory for supreme court races dating back to 2005:
|Court race competitiveness, 2005-2013|
|Year||Winning candidate||Ideological lean||Percent of vote||Losing candidate||Ideological lean||Percent of vote||Margin of victory||Majority|
|2013||Patience Roggensack (incumbent)||Conservative||57.5%||Ed Fallone||Liberal||42.5%||15%||4-3|
|2011||David T. Prosser (incumbent)||Conservative||50.2%||Joanne Kloppenburg||Liberal||49.7%||0.5%||4-3|
|2009||Shirley Abrahamson (incumbent)||Liberal||59.6%||Randy Koschnick||Conservative||40.2%||19.4%||4-3|
|2008||Michael Gableman||Conservative||51.1%||Louis Butler (incumbent)||Liberal||48.5%||2.6%||4-3|
|2007||Annette Ziegler||Conservative||58.6%||Linda M. Clifford||Liberal||41.1%||17.5%||4-3|
|2006||N. Patrick Crooks (incumbent)||Liberal||99.4%||Write-in||-||0.6%||98.8%||4-3|
|2005||Ann Walsh Bradley (incumbent)||Liberal||99.6%||Write-in||-||0.4%||99.2%||4-3|
In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan outlook 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 were more liberal. The state Supreme Court of Wisconsin was given a campaign finance score (CFscore) which was calculated for judges in October 2012. At that time, Wisconsin received a score of 0.42. Based on the justices selected, Wisconsin was the 11th most conservative court. 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 rather, an academic gauge of various factors.
The following table lists all seven Wisconsin Supreme Court justices and their ideology scores:
|State Supreme Court Ideology|
The Code of Judicial Conduct was first adopted by the state supreme court on November 14, 1967, effective January 1, 1968. It was amended in 1974, 1977, 1978, and 1979. There are five main sections of the code:
Read more of the Code of Judicial Conduct here.
Removal of justices
Justices may be removed in one of 3 ways:
- They may be impeached, with the senate acting as the court for the trial of impeachment.
- They may be removed by address of both houses of the legislature if two-thirds of each house agree. The justice must be given a copy of the charges and is able to be heard.
- They may be recalled.
In December 2013, the Center for Public Integrity released a study on disclosure requirements for state supreme court judges. Analysts from the Center reviewed the rules governing financial disclosure in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as personal financial disclosures for the past three years. The study found that 42 states and Washington D.C. received failing grades. Wisconsin earned a grade of F in the study. No state received a grade higher than "C". Furthermore, due in part to these lax disclosure standards, the study found 35 instances of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads and similar potential ethical quandaries. The study also noted 14 cases in which justices participated although they or their spouses held stock in the company involved in the litigation.
|• Justice recuses himself from DUI case (2015)||Click for summary→|
|Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser voluntarily recused himself from a case before the high court. Allegedly, Prosser contacted a lab that conducted tests on specimens in a drunk driving case and asked questions specifically related to the case. Judges are barred by a judicial code of conduct from seeking out evidence on their own; they must make decisions based upon the evidence presented at trial. In the case of appellate judges, they are bound to review only the record, which includes evidence presented at pre-trial evidentiary hearings or trial.
The case is important because it has the possibility of settling the question of when analysts must testify in DUI cases. With Prosser out, there are only six justices left to hear the case, meaning the decision could be a tie. The state's intermediate appellate court affirmed the underlying conviction, but said that this particular question arises often enough that the supreme court should settle the matter.
It is likely that Justice Prosser was not behaving shady. According to Maurer School of Law Professor Charles Geyh,
Prosser recused himself from the case on February 27, 2015.
| • Wisconsin man's privacy not violated by GPS tracking (2013)||Click for summary→|
|The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the police did not violate a man's privacy after installing a GPS tracker in his car without his knowledge. In 2007, James Brereton was a suspect in multiple burglaries in Walworth and Rock counties. Police impounded Brereton's vehicle during the course of investigating the crimes, and subsequently placed a GPS device in the car. Before placing the GPS in the vehicle, law enforcement sought and were granted a warrant from the Walworth County Circuit Court. Four days after the installation, Brereton was apprehended at a home that had just been burglarized, and incriminating evidence was found at the scene. Brereton challenged the use of the GPS, seeking to suppress evidence found as a result of its use. Brereton and his attorney contended that real-time tracking was not covered by the warrant. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals heard Brereton's challenge, but sided with law enforcement, noting that tracking is a reasonable execution of the warrant for GPS installation. On February 6, 2013, the supreme court upheld the lower appeals court's ruling; the decision was 6 to 1 in favor of law enforcement.|
| • Collective bargaining (2011)|
|Click for summary→|
|In March 2011, Judge Maryann Sumi declared an injunction against publishing the Wisconsin Legislature's bill that eliminates collective bargaining for public employees. She found that legislators broke the state's Open Meetings Law, and therefore granted a restraining order against the Secretary of State's publishing of the bill.
The state's Department of Justice and Department of Administration appealed the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. On June 14, 2011, the court overturned Sumi's ruling, saying in part that it had "usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the Legislature."
| • Menasha Corporation (2008)||Click for summary→|
|The court ruled in favor of Menasha Corp in 2008. The ruling involved the collection of sales tax on computer software purchased by Menasha Corp.
State law exempts custom software from sales and use tax, but the Wisconsin Department of Revenue claimed that the software purchased by the company was not custom software even though Menasha paid $17 million to customize it. The Wisconsin Tax Appeals Commission initially ruled in favor of the company, but the state then appealed that decision to the Dane County Circuit Court where Judge Steven Ebert overturned the appeals commission ruling.The nonpartisan group, Legislative Fiscal Bureau, speculated that the ruling could mean that the state would lose $300 million in sales tax refunds to companies which had already paid similar claims and in diminished sales tax collections.
| • Access to government records cases||Click for summary→|
|Milwaukee Journal Sentinel v. Department of Administration.
- Risser v. Klauser (1997)
- Libertarian Party of Wisconsin v. Thompson (1996)
- Thompson v. Benson (1996)
- State v. Mitchell (1992)
- State v. Stevens (1985)
- State v. Yoder (1971)
- State ex rel. Drankovich v. Murphy (1945)
- John F. Jelke Company v. Emery (1927)
- Wait v. Pierce (1926)
- Borgnis and others v. The Falk Company (1911)
- Nunnemacher v. State (1906)
- The State ex rel. Attorney General v. Cunningham and The State ex rel. Lamb v. Cunningham (1892)
- State ex rel. Weiss and others vs. District Board, etc. (1890)
- Brown v. Phillips and others (1888)
- Motion to admit Miss Lavinia Goodell to the Bar of this Court and Application of Miss Goodell (1875 & 1879)
- Attorney General v. Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Company (1874)
- Whiting v. Sheboygan & Fond du Lac Railroad Company (1870)
- Gillespie v. Palmer and others (1866)
- In re Kemp (1863)
- Chamberlain v. Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad (1860)
- Attorney General ex rel. Bashford v. Barstow (1856)
- In Re: Booth (1854)
History of the court
An appellate court system was created in the territory of Wisconsin in 1836. The circuit court judges would gather in Madison once a year as a "supreme court" to hear appeals of their own rulings. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, they decided to keep the current system for 5 years, and then decide whether create a separate supreme court. In 1852, the state legislature decided to establish the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The following year, three men were chosen as the first justices.
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.
- Lavinia Goodell was a Janesville attorney and the first woman to apply for admission to the bar of the Wisconsin Supreme Court (at that time, practice before the state’s high court required admission to a separate bar). In the first case in 1875, her application was denied; in the second, following a legislative act that prohibited denial of bar admissions based on gender, she was admitted in 1879.
- Shirley Abrahamson was the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and, subsequently the first female chief justice.
Public funding debate
The Democracy Trust Fund was passed with Act 89 and Act 216 in 2009, and took effect on May 1, 2010. The fund provided public funding to supreme court candidates who applied and qualified for the grants. Money was collected with a voluntary $3 dollar check off on state tax returns, which would not decrease the amount of a tax refund or increase taxes owed by the individual. The amounts of the grants were $150,000 for candidates qualifying for the primary, and $300,000 for the general.
In 2011, the Democracy Trust Fund was cancelled, along with the other public financing program in the state, the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund. This change was a part of the 2011-2013 budget bill signed by Governor Scott Walker. Walker had proposed changing the public financing programs to "add-on" donations. Donations of this kind already exist on tax returns, where tax payers can choose to donate to endangered species or to cancer research, for example. These donations do decrease the tax refund or increase the amount of taxes owed. Kevin Kennedy, the executive director of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, speculated that this change would decrease donations from about $200,000 per year to somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000. The state legislature's Joint Finance Committee instead decided to get rid of the campaign financing programs altogether. There is now no public financing of campaigns for any Wisconsin candidates.
The idea of public funding for court races goes back to at least 2000. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a study sponsored by the nonpartisan group Wisconsin Citizen Action found that nearly 75% of the high court's cases from 2000 to 2010 involved at least one campaign contributor, although there was no connection found between donations and court decisions. Carolyn Castore of Wisconsin Citizen Action applauded the move towards public-funded elections back when the Democracy Trust Fund was being created, saying, "In an effort to clean up the way Supreme Court races are funded, the committee has taken a giant step towards ensuring the impartiality and independence of the Wisconsin Supreme Court."
This section displays the most recent stories in a Google news search for the terms "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.
- Wisconsin Court System, "Supreme Court"
- Wisconsin Blue Book, "Supreme Court Biographies," 2005-2006
- Wisconsin Court System, "Supreme court opinions: Oral arguments"
- Wisconsin Court System, "Internal Operating Procedures of the Supreme Court"
- Wisconsin Government Accountability Board
- The Lakeland Times, "Supreme Court divisions can be traced to appointments, not money," July 8, 2011
- Madison.com, "Justices decide against opening deliberations to public," September 16, 2011
- The ABA Journal, "The Badgering State: Wis. Battles over Worker’s Rights and Skirmishes in the Supreme Court," Feb 1, 2012
- Wisconsin Civil Justice Council
- Wisconsin Court System, "Supreme Court," accessed September 18, 2014
- Wisconsin State Legislature, "Wisconsin Constitution," accessed September 19, 2014 (Artible VII, Section 4: pg.10)
- Wisconsin State Legislature, "Wisconsin Constitution," accessed September 19, 2014 (Artible VII, Section 24: pg.11)
- Wisconsin Legislature, "2013 Senate Joint Resolution 57," accessed May 8, 2014
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Constitutional amendment would let court select chief justice," October 29, 2013
- Hudson Star-Observer, "Supreme Court governance issue inches toward April ballot; state's housing market nearly recovered; 12 more Wisconsin stories," January 20, 2015
- Legislative Reference Bureau, "Constitutional Amendment Given "First Consideration" Approval by the 2013 Wisconsin Legislature," January 2015
- Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Abrahamson sues to keep her job for four more years," April 8, 2015
- Wisconsin State Journal, "Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson sues over amendment approved by voters," April 8, 2015
- Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
- United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, "Shirley Abrahamson et al. v. Department of Administration," April 8, 2015
- Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Judge declines to immediately halt chief justice amendment," April 9, 2015
- UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF WISCONSIN, "Case: 3:15-cv-00211-jdp," April 9, 2016
- Election Law Blog, "Federal Court to WI Chief Justice Abrahamson: Follow Federal Rules for TROs," April 10, 2015
- Connecticut Post, "Justice Bradley to defend herself in Abrahamson lawsuit," April 21, 2015
- Wisconsin State Journal, "Judge declines to block chief justice selection change," April 21, 2015
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson should drop her lawsuit," April 14, 2015
- Beloit Daily News, "Accept the will of state’s voters," April 13, 2015
- The Capital Times, "Chief Justice Abrahamson is right to seek clarification of conflict," April 15, 2015
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Conservative group seeks to intervene in chief justice case," April 13, 2015
- Wisconsin Blue Book, "Supreme Court," 2005-2006
- Wisconsin Court System, "Publications, reports and addresses: Annual reports," accessed September 18, 2014
- Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "Candidates Registered 2015 Spring Election," January 8, 2015
- WisconsinVote.org, "Current Election Results," accessed April 7, 2015
- Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "Results of Spring General Election," April 7, 2009
- University of Minnesota, "The Incumbency Advantage in Wisconsin Supreme Court Elections," April 11, 2011
- Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
- Wisconsin Court System, "Code of Judicial Conduct," accessed September 18, 2014
- Wisconsin Constitution, "Article VII: Judiciary, Sections 1 & 13," accessed September 19, 2014
- Wisconsin Legislature, "Section 9.10 Post election actions; direct legislation: Recall," accessed Septmeber 19, 2014
- Center for Public Integrity, "State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information," December 5, 2013
- Channel 3000, "State high court judge may have broken rule by quizzing lab," April 4, 2015
- San Francisco Gate, "Wis. court: Police use of GPS in burglary case OK," February 6, 2013
- The Republic, "Wisconsin Supreme Court says police's installation of GPS in burglary suspect's car was OK," February 6, 2013
- Fox11, "Supreme Court rejects appeal in GPS planting case," February 6, 2013 (dead link)
- The Daily Cardinal, "DOA will enforce union law despite injunction," March 31, 2011
- Wisconsin State Journal, "Judge strikes down Walker's collective bargaining law, case moves to state Supreme Court," May 26, 2011
- Wisconsin Reporter, "Judge: Collective bargaining bill violated open meetings law," May 26, 2011
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Supreme Court reinstates collective bargaining law," June 14, 2011
- Foley.com, "Wisconsin Supreme Court Affirms That Enterprise-Wide Software Is Exempt as "Custom" Computer Program," July 11, 2008
- Wisconsin Court System, "Portraits of Justice: Introduction," 2003
- Wisconsin Court System, "Famous cases: Motion to admit Miss Lavinia Goodell to the Bar of this Court and Application of Miss Goodell," accessed September 19, 2014
- Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "Wisconsin Impartial Justice Act and Democracy Trust Fund," accessed September 19, 2014
- Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "Public Funding," accessed September 19, 2014
- Wisconsin Watch, "Campaign financing dead in Wisconsin," June 30, 2011
- Brennan Center for Justice, "Wisconsin Judicial Elections," accessed September 19, 2014