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

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Type:Constitutional amendment
Constitution:Wisconsin Constitution
Referred by:Wisconsin Legislature
Status:On the ballot

The Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Amendment, Question 1 is on the April 7, 2015 ballot in Wisconsin as a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment. The measure, upon voter approval, would provide for the election of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice by a majority of the justices serving on the court. The chief justice would serve a two year term.[1]

Currently, the Wisconsin Constitution mandates that the Chief Justice be appointed based on seniority from the pool of justices sitting on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson has served as the court's chief justice since 1996. She's considered a "liberal," but the court majority is considered "conservative," according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.[2] Opponents argue that the amendment is a political attack on Chief Justice Abrahamson and that the current method is more democratic because it allows the justice who has been elected by voters the most times to be chief justice, while supporters contend the proposed system is more democratic because the justices would decide who is the head of the court and would decrease conflict amongst the justices.[3]

Text of measure

Ballot title

The official ballot text is as follows:[4]

Question 1: "Election of chief justice. Shall section 4 (2) of article VII of the constitution be amended to direct that a chief justice of the supreme court shall be elected for a two-year term by a majority of the justices then serving on the court?"[5]

Ballot summary

The official explanation statement is as follows:[6]

The Wisconsin constitution currently provides that the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is its longest-serving member. The proposed constitutional amendment would instead select the chief justice through an election by a majority of the justices then serving on the Court.

A “yes” vote on this question would mean that the chief justice shall be elected for a term of two years by a majority of the justices then serving on the Wisconsin Supreme 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 Wisconsin Supreme Court.

A “no” vote would mean that the longest-serving member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court serves as chief justice of the Court. The justice designated as chief justice may decline to serve as chief justice or resign the position, but still continue to serve as a justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.[5]

Constitutional changes

See also: Article VII, Wisconsin Constitution

SJR 57 would amend Section 4 of Article VII of the Constitution of Wisconsin. The following struck-through text would be deleted and the underlined text would be added by the proposed measure's approval:[1]

Section 4 (2) The justice having been longest a continuous member of said court, or in case 2 or more such justices shall have served for the same length of time, the justice whose term first expires, shall be the chief justice. The chief justice of the supreme court shall be elected for a term of 2 years by a majority of the justices then serving on the court. The justice so designated as chief justice may, irrevocably, decline to serve as chief justice or resign as chief justice but continue to serve as a justice of the supreme court.[5]




A number of legislators voted to place the amendment on the ballot, including 62 representatives and 17 senators in 2015. A full list of legislators by how they voted on the amendment can be found here.

The following state senators sponsored the amendment:[7][8]

The following state representatives sponsored the amendment:[7][8]

Other officials who support the amendment include:

Judge Daley is running against Justice Bradley for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the April 7, 2015, election.

Former officials

The following former legislators sponsored the amendment:[7]

Other former officials who support the amendment include:


  • Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce[11]
  • Wisconsin Family Action[12]


Don Huebscher, editor of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, concluded the "world isn’t going to end whichever way this vote goes," but also argued that a yes vote is preferable. He wrote:

... Proponents of the change say a peer vote would make the court more congenial. That would be welcome given the rancor that has embarrassed the court and the state in several episodes in recent years, although it’s debatable whether having someone other than Abrahamson as chief justice would have made any difference...

It’s hard to have strong feelings either way. But if the referendum passes, perhaps the two sides can collaborate and agree to promote someone both sides see as a strong leader who respects all voices on the court, be that Abrahamson or someone else.

Besides, we all know that what goes around comes around in politics, and labels aside, this is about politics. So if and when the liberal bloc regains control of the court, those justices will hold sway in picking their leader.

It’s hard to argue that the person on the court the longest is the most qualified to be chief justice, so what’s the harm of letting the justices pick their leader? It’s not as if that person gets two votes or wields some other extraordinary powers.

Another plus might be that whomever the conservative bloc picks would have to lead with dignity and respect for the body or risk being ousted two years hence. If nothing else, the bi-annual vote would bring a bit more attention to a body that most people know far too little about.[5]

—Don Huebscher[13]

Other arguments in support of the amendment include:

  • Rep. Rob Hutton (R-13) argued that the amendment would allow for a more democratic system of choosing the Supreme Court Chief Justice. He elaborated, "It not only minimizes the politics but it introduces more collaboration and cohesion."[2]
  • Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-13) labeled the amendment a "common-sense measure." He said, "For me, it's kind of a no-brainer. You have to remember, that one person has control over the entire judicial branch of government in our state. Because of that, I think we can make the case that it's [the amendment] a good thing to do."[14]




A number of legislators voted against placing the amendment on the ballot, including 34 representatives and 14 senators in 2015. A full list of legislators by how they voted on the amendment can be found here.

Former officials

  • Former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager (D)[16]


  • Wisconsin Association for Justice[17]
  • Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
  • Common Cause Wisconsin[11]
  • One Wisconsin Now
  • Our Democracy 2020[16][18]
  • Urban Underground
  • United Council of UW Students
  • Peace Action Wisconsin
  • One Wisconsin Institute
  • Milwaukee Riders Union Transit
  • Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope
  • Clean Slate
  • Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund
  • WISPIRG Foundation
  • Wisconsin Voices
  • Fair Elections Legal Network
  • League of Women Voters Wisconsin
  • The Joyce Foundation
  • Wisconsin Common Cause


  • John Nichols, journalist and author[19]


Targeting Abrahamson

See also: Political outlook of state supreme court justices
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson

One of the central arguments of opponents is that the amendment's goal is to rid the "liberal" Shirley Abrahamson of her position as Chief Justice. They contend that the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature is attempting to empower the conservative-majority court to select a "conservative" Chief Justice.[2] Former Mississippi Justice Oliver Diaz, commenting on the debate in Wisconsin, noted, "Of course, this is about getting rid of one justice. If it wasn’t, they would grandfather in sitting justices or not have the law take effect mid-term."[20] Rep. Gary Hebl (D-46) commented, "Clearly, this is going against Shirley."[21] Lisa Kaiser, Assistant Editor at the Milwaukee-based newspaper Shepherd Express, summed up the opposition's concerns:

The proposed amendment is widely seen as an attempt to reduce the power of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who has served as chief since 1996. Abrahamson frequently dissents from the conservative majority and has at times issued blistering critiques of their decisions. For example, Abrahamson was a strong critic of the conservative justices’ decision to shred the state’s open meeting law in an effort to justify the way the Republican Legislature passed Act 10, the 2011 law busting public employee unions. And Prosser, a former Republican legislative leader who is now viewed as the leader of the conservative wing of the Supreme Court, famously called Abrahamson a “total bitch” and threatened to “destroy” her. At the same time, most court watchers, both Democrats and Republicans, agree that Justice Abrahamson is without question the smartest member of the Supreme Court and a fair chief justice.[5]

—Lisa Kaiser[22]

Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff, political science professors at 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. Abrahamson is more liberal than the average CF score of 0.42 that justices received in Wisconsin. Of the seven current supreme court justices, Abrahamson was deemed the most liberal, followed by Justice Ann Bradley. The other fives justices were all considered "conservative" in the study. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is the 11th most conservative state supreme court in the nation, while Chief Justice Abrahamson is the 12th most liberal supreme court justice.[23]

The following table lists all seven Wisconsin Supreme Court justices and their ideology scores:[23]

State Supreme Court Ideology
State Justice Ideology Score
Wisconsin Shirley Abrahamson -1.29
Wisconsin Ann Bradley -0.39
Wisconsin Patrick Crooks 0.59
Wisconsin Patience Roggensack 0.67
Wisconsin Annette Ziegler 1.25
Wisconsin David Prosser 0.77
Wisconsin Mike Gableman 1.35

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, noting the partisanship in the legislature and court, deemed the amendment a "tool to settle political scores" and argued the legislature was targeting Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Justice Bradley elaborated:

I think the constitutional amendments are being targeted at replacing our chief justice. That's short-sighted because the political pendulum swings; all of us know that. And we don't want 10 years from now, this constitution, which is the foundation of our state, to be used by another party that may be in power as some kind of political pingpong to go back and forth.[5]

—Justice Ann Walsh Bradley[14]

Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who the measure's opponents believe the amendment is targeting, offered her own response:

The proposed constitutional amendment would tarnish our constitution, undermine the will of the voters, and threaten the nonpartisan, independent judiciary the people of Wisconsin deserve and depend on to protect their interests.[5]

—Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson[15]

Other arguments

Wisconsin Voices, an organization opposing the amendment, issued the following statement:

For 125 years, the Chief Justice has been the most senior and experienced member of the court as the state Constitution has long required. Now politicians want to throw away this tradition and trump fair and impartial justice with partisanship. The coalition believes that fair courts are essential to ensuring that a democracy is free, fair and accessible. Citizens should decide who represents them, not big money. The coalition will affirm its commitment to educating voters on the importance of having fair courts in a tense political environment that is influenced by big money and special interests.[5]

—Wisconsin Voices[24]

Ann Jacobs, President of the Wisconsin Association for Justice and founder of Jacobs Injury Law S.C. in Milwaukee, said proponents of the amendment were tinkering with the constitution for political gain. She called on voters to reject the amendment, arguing:

Under Wisconsin’s constitution, the chief justice is chosen objectively; we the people choose the members of the high court. Importantly, the justice with the most high court experience — the justice who has been elected to the most terms by Wisconsin voters — is appointed chief justice.

For 125 years, Wisconsin voters have expressed their voice at the ballot box and elected both their judges, and by re-electing popular jurists, their chief justice. Experience trumps politics and political connections.

Now there is an attempt to change this long-standing tradition, and wrest the vote from the citizens by changing our constitution. The proposed amendment would make the chief justice position a popularity contest — instead of experience and the voters dictating who gets the job of leading the court, the seven sitting justices, behind closed doors, would pick a new leader every two years. Politics now trumps experience and the voice of the people is gone...

This change to our Wisconsin constitution is bad for Wisconsin and bad for our democracy. We shouldn’t eliminate our cherished right to elect our chief judge in an attempt to "change the referee." Wisconsinites can disagree on many issues, but we are unified in our desire to continue our 125-year tradition of electing our chief judge.[5]

—Ann Jacobs[20]

John Nichols, co-author of Dollarocracy, correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times, contended that the amendment would politicize the process of electing the Supreme Court Chief Justice. Nichols argued:

... Historically, the chief justice has been the court's senior member. This has insulated the chief from disputes on the court and from outside political pressure. Under the plan advanced by conservative legislators and passed once by the Legislature, the selection of the chief justice would be politicized — with the seven justices choosing and replacing chief justices...

Understand what this means: Currently, when an individual chosen by the voters becomes the longest-serving justice, he or she becomes the chief justice. That chief justice is not subject to the ideological whims and political twists and turns of the court; rather, he or she is accountable to the voters. If the voters do not like a chief justice, they can remove that justice at the next election. If the voters want to keep a chief justice on the job, they can re-elect that jurist.

Abrahamson respected the process. She sought re-election as the chief justice and the voters gave her a mandate to serve a new term on the court. Now, politicians are seeking to undo the process that Abrahamson and the voters respected.[5]

—John Nichols[19]

Media editorial positions

See also: Endorsements of Wisconsin ballot measures, 2015


  • Eau Claire Leader-Telegram said, "But if the referendum passes, perhaps the two sides can collaborate and agree to promote someone both sides see as a strong leader who respects all voices on the court, be that Abrahamson or someone else."[13]


  • Channel 3000 said, "But this week’s effort to go the constitutional amendment route again for the sole purpose of getting rid of a chief Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice some Republicans don’t like borders on frivolous abuse of the constitutional amending process."[25]

Path to the ballot

See also: Amending the Wisconsin Constitution

The Wisconsin State Legislature is required to approve the amendment by simple majority vote in two successive sessions. The Wisconsin Senate approved the amendment, known as Senate Joint Resolution 57, for the first time on November 12, 2013. The Wisconsin Assembly approved SJR 57 for the first time on November 14, 2013.[7]

To get the amendment placed on the April 7, 2015, ballot, both chambers of the legislature needed to approve the amendment by January 27, 2015.[26]

On January 20, 2015, the Wisconsin Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 2, the second-sessesion equivalent of SJR 57, in a 17 to 14 vote.[27] On January 22, 2015, the Wisconsin Assembly approved the bill in a 62 to 34 vote. The vote was split along partisan lines in both chambers, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against the amendment.[28]

Senate vote

November 12, 2013, Senate vote

Wisconsin SJR 57 Senate Vote
Approveda Yes 18 54.55%

January 20, 2015, Senate vote

Wisconsin SJR 2 Senate Vote
Approveda Yes 17 54.84%
Partisan breakdown of 2015 Senate votes
Party Affiliation Yes No Paired/Absent Total
Democrat 0 14 0 14
Republican 17 0 1 18
Total 17 14 1 32

Assembly vote

November 14, 2013, Assembly vote

Wisconsin SJR 57 Assembly Vote
Approveda Yes 54 58.70%

January 22, 2015, Assembly vote

Wisconsin SJR 2 Assembly Vote
Approveda Yes 62 64.58%
Partisan breakdown of 2015 Assembly votes
Party Affiliation Yes No Paired/Absent Total
Democrat 0 34 2 36
Republican 62 0 1 63
Total 62 34 3 99

See also

Suggest a link

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wisconsin Legislature, "2013 Senate Joint Resolution 57," accessed May 8, 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Constitutional amendment would let court select chief justice," October 29, 2013
  3. Hudson Star-Observer, "Supreme Court governance issue inches toward April ballot; state's housing market nearly recovered; 12 more Wisconsin stories," January 20, 2015
  4. Government Accountability Board, "Referendum on Election of Chief Justice," accessed February 1, 2015
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  6. Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "Notice of Referendum," accessed March 13, 2015
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Wisconsin Legislature, "Senate Joint Resolution 57 History," accessed May 10, 2014
  8. 8.0 8.1 Wisconsin Legislature, "2015 Assembly Joint Resolution 1 History," accessed January 12, 2015
  9. Wisconsin Law Journal, "Daley wants to be first Wis. justice to vote for chief," January 20, 2015
  10. Wisconsin Radio Network, "Wilcox favors electing Wisconsin chief justice," January 9, 2015
  11. 11.0 11.1 Wisconsin Legislature, "Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety on SJR 2," accessed January 21, 2015
  12. Wisconsin Legislature, "House Committee on Judiciary for AJR 1," accessed January 21, 2015
  13. 13.0 13.1 Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, "Let justices pick their leader," March 19, 2015
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 The Capital Times, "Justice Ann Walsh Bradley says constitutional amendment improperly being used as 'tool to settle political scores'," January 18, 2015
  15. 15.0 15.1 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Assembly approves amendment on chief justice selection," January 24, 2015
  16. 16.0 16.1 The Journal Times, "Opponents to changing chief justice selection speak out," March 23, 2015
  17. Wisconsin Government Accountability, "Assembly Joint Resolution 1," accessed January 12, 2015
  18. Our Democracy 2020, "Who We Are," accessed March 23, 2015
  19. 19.0 19.1 The Capital Times, "John Nichols: Scheming to replace the chief justice," January 11, 2015
  20. 20.0 20.1 Superior Telegram, "Constitutional change is all about politics," February 13, 2015
  21. The Capital Times, "Ballot measure on chief justice could impact Supreme Court race," March 3, 2015
  22. Shepherd Express, "Republican Constitutional Amendment Targets Supreme Court," March 4, 2015
  23. 23.0 23.1 Stanford University "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
  24. Wisconsin Election Watch, "Group urges no vote on Chief Justice selection amendment," March 23, 2015
  25. Channel 3000, "Lawmakers need to stop abuse of proposing constitutional amendments," January 7, 2015
  26. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Panel backs chief justice measure after Democrats walk out," January 15, 2015
  27. Wisconsin Legislature, "Wisconsin Senate Roll Call for SJR 2," accessed January 21, 2015
  28. Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Wisconsin Assembly passes state Supreme Court chief justice amendment," January 22, 2015