© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Shirley Abrahamson, Wisconsin’s First Female Supreme Court Justice, Dies

The late Shirley Abrahamson, who died Saturday

Shirley Abrahamson, the longest-serving Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in state history and the first woman to serve on the high court, has died. She was 87.

Abrahamson, who also served as chief justice for a record 19 years, died Saturday after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her son Dan Abrahamson told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement that Abrahamson had a “larger-than-life impact” on the state's legal profession and her legacy is defined “not just by being a first, but her life’s work of ensuring she would not be the last, paving and lighting the way for the many women and others who would come after her.”

Long recognized as a top legal scholar nationally and a leader among state judges, Abrahamson wrote more than 450 majority opinions and participated in more than 3,500 written decisions during her more than four decades on Wisconsin’s highest court. She retired in 2019 and moved to California to be closer with her family.

In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton considered putting her on the U.S. Supreme Court, and she was later profiled in the book, “Great American Judges: An Encyclopedia.”

She told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2006 that she enjoyed being on the court. “It has a mix of sitting, reading and writing and thinking, which I enjoy doing. And it’s quiet. On the other hand, all of the problems I work on are real problems of real people, and it matters to them, and it matters to the state of Wisconsin. So that gives an edge to it, and a stress,” she said.

The New York City native, with the accent to prove it, graduated first in her class from Indiana University Law School in 1956, three years after her marriage to Seymour Abrahamson. The couple moved to Madison and her husband, a world-renowned geneticist, joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty in 1961. He died in 2016.

She earned a law degree from UW-Madison in 1962, then worked as a professor and joined a Madison law firm, hired by the father of future Gov. Jim Doyle.

Appointed to the state's high court by then-Gov. Patrick Lucey in 1976, Abrahamson won reelection four times to 10-year terms, starting in 1979. She broke the record for longest-serving in justice in 2013, her 36th year on the court.

Abrahamson was in the majority when the court in 2005 allowed a boy to sue over lead paint injuries even though he could not prove which company made the product that sickened him — undoing decades of precedent and opening paint companies to lawsuits seeking damages.

But Abrahamson found herself in the minority on several high-profile cases later in her career, including in 2011, when the court upheld the law championed by Republican then-Gov. Scott Walker effectively ending public employee union rights, and again in 2015, when the court ended a politically charged investigation into Walker and conservative groups.

Abrahamson’s health began to fail in 2018, and she frequently missed court hearings. That May, she announced she wouldn’t run again in 2019, and in August, she revealed she has cancer.

Doyle, a former Wisconsin attorney general and two-term governor, called Abrahamson a pioneer and said he sought her advice when he first ran for Dane County district attorney in the 1970s. Doyle's father, who was a federal judge, gave Abrahamson her first job out of law school, Doyle said Sunday. “She was just the warmest, funniest, dearest friend anyone could have,” Doyle said.

Doyle has credited Abrahamson with working to demystify the court by holding hearings around the state and meeting with school groups and others to discuss its work. In addition to breaking barriers for women, Doyle has said Abrahamson was a champion of civil rights and civil liberties, a protector of basic constitutional rights, and a strong advocate for open government and public records.

Dan Abrahamson, who practices law in California, said his mom kept her work and personal life separate. “She was always there for meals,” he said. “She was always there with me for homework. ... As a mother, all of the energy and all of the attention to deal and all the care she brought to her professional life she brought to her family as well.”

Abrahamson wasn’t without her enemies, both on the court and among Republican lawmakers who pushed a constitutional amendment in 2015 that led to her ouster as chief justice. The voter-approved amendment enabled members of the court to choose the chief justice — who oversees the state court system — instead of requiring the title go to the most senior justice.

Abrahamson, who became chief in 1996, was quickly voted out by conservative justices who held a majority on the court when the new law took effect in 2015. Justice Patience Roggensack has served as chief justice since then.

Although she often clashed with more conservative members of the court, and drew support from liberals and Democrats, Abrahamson steadfastly maintained she was independent. “When I joined the court, I was given a voice — a voice that I have not hesitated to use,” Abrahamson said in May 2018. “The best expression of appreciation I can give the people who have elected and repeatedly reelected me is to continue to speak with the clarity, forthrightness and compassion that come from a life I have tried to devote to service and to justice for all.”