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Politics & Government

State Lawmakers Debate Supreme Court Chief Justice Selection

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Some Wisconsin legislators want to impose change on the state Supreme Court.

One bill would require justices to retire at age 75. Another is a proposed constitutional amendment. It would change the way the high court selects its chief justice.

The legislature has already passed the amendment once, now it’s up for a second time. If approved, voters would make the final decision.

The leader of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, has been its most senior member. Since 1996, that person has been Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

Republican Rep. Rob Hutton says the seniority system is rare – only a handful of states use it. He’s urging colleagues to approve the proposed amendment that would allow the justices to elect their chief, and for a two-year term.

“This proposed change to our state constitution is about improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our courts. By changing how the administrative head of the judicial system is chosen, we will be bringing the position of chief justice to the foundation of the democratic process,” Hutton says.

Hutton insists his bill is not about one branch of government telling another how to operate. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been described as ideologically-divided in recent times, with Abrahamson being part of the liberal minority.

One non-legislator who testified in favor of the change at Thursday’s hearing, was former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox. He says it would give every justice a chance to lead.

“It would allow more new ideas. It would allow more transparency on that court. It would allow more respect and courtesy and collegiality on the court and what about the Golden Rule? The example that each justice could be sitting as chief justice on that court,” Wilcox says.

A Democrat serving on the committee – Rep. Gary Hebl questioned Wilcox about the urgency of the matter.

Hebl: “I’m concerned that we as a legislative body make sure that we engage in matters that really rise to the level of a constitutional concern. And we’re talking about the selection of the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In your estimation, does this rise to that level?"

Wilcox: “I think it does because the bill wants to change that. Nobody else can change that but you, an elected representative of the people.”

Another Democrat, Assemblyman Evan Goyke questioned Rep. Hutton about the degree to which the issue is on the minds of the public.

Goyke: “So, you’ve been contacted by constituents that are concerned with the selection process of the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court?”

Hutton: “I’ve talked to a number of residents and we’ve looked at polling that tells us that the people of the state have looked at our current Supreme Court justice system and have said, maybe there are better ways to appoint leadership in our Supreme Court justice and I think they deserve to have a say.”

Another person insisted the public takes comfort in knowing the chief justice has the most experience. Former Court of Appeals Judge Daniel LaRocque urged lawmakers to leave the system alone.

“Someone who’s seen it operate for a period, I don’t think it’s any different than any other industry. The longer you see how things work, assuming you’re of reasonable intelligence and interest, you’re going to find out how the system works, a person just does, it’s almost intuitive,” LaRocque says.

The committee didn’t vote, but is expected to soon. Republican leaders say they want to put the measure to voters, in April.