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Senate Committee Hears Testimony on Chief Justice Selection

An effort is underway in Wisconsin, to change a tradition of the state Supreme Court.

For decades, the judge with the most seniority has served as the court’s Chief Justice. A proposal in the Legislature would let the justices pick their leader. The public had its first opportunity to comment, at a hearing Thursday.

Wisconsin is one of only five states that use seniority to determine who serves as chief justice according to Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany. He calls his plan more modern - require the justices to select their leader.

“I think this is the ultimate in the democratic process to have the seven justices of the Supreme Court choose the chief justice. I think it fosters collegiality and I think it’s a good thing for the court,” Tiffany says.

Under Tiffany’s bill, the court would vote on chief justice every two years and the longest a person could serve is three consecutive terms. Justice Shirley Abrahamson is on her 17th year, because she’s been the court’s longest serving member.

Observers have characterized the court as split ideologically four to three, with Abrahamson being part of the liberal minority. There have also been reports of bickering between the factions, including a physical altercation.

Democratic Sen. Fred Risser says animosity could grow, if the court votes on chief justice.

“With a chief justice by seniority, there’s a degree of certainty. If you elect them, what’s going to happen when two or three Justices campaign for that job? You’re going to have a conflict amongst the seven because maybe two, maybe three, maybe all seven of them want to be Chief Justice so you’ve got a big contest,” Risser says.

The chief justice of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has several responsibilities. They include scheduling the cases the court will hear and leading its private deliberations. The leader can set the tone, so former Justice Jon Wilcox says he favors letting the majority choose and limiting terms.

“I believe it would allow for more new ideas on the court as well as allow it to be more creative. Allowing the court to select its chief judge would allow every justice to have a say about the court’s direction,” Wilcox says.

While Wilcox feels it’s time for change in Wisconsin, another former jurist perceives wisdom in the system the state constitution established. Andrew Bissonnette used to serve as circuit court judge in Dodge County.

“I stopped to wonder when I looked at the current constitutional position, why they did it this way. I think it has a lot to do with their fostering of a non partisan court. Wisconsin courts have been non-partisan from day one and I think that the chief position going to the most senior judge kind of goes hand in glove with a non partisan judiciary,” Bissonnette says.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor just gathered testimony on the plan Thursday. A vote is expected later. If the Legislature approves the bill, the next session of the Legislature would have to do the same and so would voters, in order to amend the state constitution.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.