Bremer Muggli Column: How not to choose a chief justice

Posted by Bremer & Trollop |
Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

In current system, voters choose Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice. A partisan constitutional amendment would change that.

The April 7 election will present to Wisconsin voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the method of choosing the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The current method, which has been in place for over 125 years, allows Wisconsin voters to express their preference at the ballot box for the person who will serve as the chief justice. Although there have been attempts to take away the people's right to elect their judges, Wisconsin voters have maintained this right to assure a democratic government in all three branches.

Politics plays no role in the selection, as judicial elections have been separated from partisan, state and county elections. The individual with the most seniority who is re-elected by the people of Wisconsin will serve as chief justice during his or her term in office — that is, 10 years.

The genius of our current system is that it allows the justice with the most institutional knowledge and experience to carry out the increased responsibilities of the position. The predictability of the current system allows for the chief justice to make tough decisions as the chief administrator of the state courts.

The April 7 election ballot will contain a provision that, if it succeeds, will take away the vote from the citizens by changing our constitution. The proposed constitutional amendment would make the position of chief justice subject to a popularity contest between seven sitting justices, who would choose the chief behind closed doors every two years, inserting politics directly into the Supreme Court.

Instead of spending time resolving cases, the court will be bogged down every two years in a battle for the chief justice, creating discord and inviting factions to form and grow.

It is apparent that this proposed constitutional amendment was brought forward as a means of ousting our sitting chief justice, Shirley Abrahamson, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1976 as the first woman to serve. Since that time, she has been recognized as one of the most prolific and respected jurists in the U.S. She has written more majority opinions than any other jurist sitting today. Recently, however, she has written mostly dissenting opinions.

The key motivation behind this targeted attack on the chief justice is to squeeze out minority views and pack the court with those who align in ideology with the current majority. Chief Justice Abrahamson's presence on the court gives it much-needed balance so that the rights of all of the people are considered, not just the conservative majority.

If this measure were truly above partisanship and not an effort to force out the chief justice, the authors of the proposed amendment would have "grandmothered" Justice Abrahamson in, to allow her to fulfill her whole term as chief to 2019. Instead, this amendment would take effect mid-term and nullify the will of the electorate.

The authors of this proposed constitutional amendment declare that it promotes democracy. Nothing is further from the truth. The democratic process has worked to allow all of the voters of Wisconsin to choose their chief justice. The chief justice, once elected, should not be prevented from serving her term in the role to which she was elected.

I urge you to vote no on the constitutional amendment to change the selection process for the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Christine Bremer Muggli is an attorney in Wausau.

View the complete column in The Wausau Daily Herald.