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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]

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."[3]


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.[4]


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[5]
  • 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[6]
  • 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."[7]

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.[8]


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.[9]

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.[11]

Abrahamson explained her position on the matter, stating that it was better to except 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.[11]

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[12]

Critics claim that expanded Federalism is a way to protect judges in the state courts who practice judicial activism in hopes the Supreme Court of the United States or a Federal Court of Appeals does not overturn their rulings.[12]

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.[13]

See also

External links