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Bill That Would Allow Justices to Select Chief Headed to Full Assembly


A bill that would change the way the Wisconsin Supreme Court selects its chief justice advanced another step on Thursday.

The Assembly Judiciary committee voted 5-3 in favor of a constitutional amendment that would allow justices to appoint their chief. Currently, the position is based on seniority.

The debate fell along party lines. 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 measure would allow justices to elect their chief to a two year term.

One committee member who voted in favor of the bill was Republican state Rep. Samantha Kerkman. She thinks the idea encourages collegiality on the court.

“I think it does spur fresh ideas and makes things, makes people better. When we elect our leaders in the Legislature, I think it’s something that should be emulated by the court. I think it does build consensus,” Kerkman says.

The current chief, Shirley Abrahamson, has been in the position since 1996. The court has been described as ideologically divided in recent years, with Abrahamson being part of the liberal minority.

One person opposed to the bill is state Rep. Gary Hebl, a Democrat on the committee. He called the notion of collegiality a hollow argument and thinks the measure could create a state of chaos on the high court.

“You have elections every two years, what are you doing? We’re Assembly people. We know what it’s like to have elections every two years. We don’t stop running. And, if we have that on the Supreme Court, that two year cycle, it’s going to create a lack of collegiality,” Hebl says.

Hebl introduced an amendment to the bill that would have allowed Abrahamson to serve as chief through 2019, when her term on the court ends. But, the committee rejected the motion.

Another Democrat, Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee, says the measure is unnecessary, and accused GOP members of orchestrating a political move aimed at ousting Abrahamson.

“We’re putting our name on a change to our most important document in our state government, our constitution for this? To elect a chief justice to a two year term because we don’t like Shirley Abrahamson, because we’re upset that she’s outlasted everybody else?” Goyke asks.

Republicans on the committee insist they have nothing personal against Abrahamson. Committee Chairman Jim Ott thinks voters should decide.

“I might be more concerned about this if we were say, changing the number of justices from seven to ten or changing the term of the court. All we are doing is saying to the people of Wisconsin, do you think you would like the court to be able to elect their chief justice. These are very smart people. I think they can elect their own leader just like the legislature elects its own leaders,” Ott says.

Ott thinks the current seniority system is outdated -- only a handful of states use it.

The bill now moves to the floor of the Assembly. Republican leaders have said they hope to put the issue on the ballot in time for the April election.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.