Court Won’t Reinstate Ousted WI Chief Judge

     MADISION, Wis. (CN) – A federal judge on Friday dismissed Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s civil rights lawsuit over her ouster as chief of the state’s high court.
     In a 35-page opinion and order, Judge James D. Peterson ruled that the voter-approved amendment changing the selection process for the head of the state high court was valid and actionable the day the election results were certified.
     “Unless its actions are plainly unconstitutional, Wisconsin has the authority and autonomy to restructure its government without interference from the federal government,” Peterson wrote.
     Although Abrahamson led the state’s high court from 1996 to 2015 based on seniority, her position has been in limbo since April 7 when voters narrowly passed a ballot measure that adopted a vote-based selection system.
     With her term as justice not scheduled to end until 2019, Abrahamson and five supporters filed a federal suit against the remaining judges and state officials, asking Peterson to rule that the ballot measure’s immediate enactment – via an election by all the justices – would deprive her of property rights to her chief status and accompanying salary.
     In the interim, the election results were certified and six of the justices made Justice Patience Drake Roggensack chief in an email election. Abrahamson and two others took no part in the election, which Peterson declined to overturn pending resolution of the civil rights case.
     “The court has some misgivings about whether this election actually reflects a judicial interpretation of the amendment, because the issue was not presented to the court in the usual manner with advocates presenting the competing positions,” Peterson wrote. “But the down-and-dirty interpretation (which defendants dignify with the term ‘de facto’) will do for the purposes of this case.”
     This approach pervaded Peterson’s opinion: the federal government has no say in matters of state law. The claimed injury by Abrahamson’s backers boils down to a “disagreement with the way Wisconsin has interpreted the amendment,” he wrote.
     “But disagreement with a state law or policy does not constitute an injury,” Peterson wrote.
     As for Abrahamson’s claims, federal interference in this case flies in the face of states’ rights.
     “If state officials, whose benefits might be changed, could object on due-process grounds to structural changes in state government, the federal courts would inevitably be drawn into disputes over matters that are properly for the state alone, because virtually any change in the structure of state government has the potential to adversely affect some of its officials,” Peterson wrote.
     Ruling in favor of the plaintiff’s argument that “the position of chief justice entails a property interest” subject to due-process restrictions, Peterson nonetheless declined to find a violation of that right.
     “A constitutional amendment is the most democratic form of lawmaking that a state can practically undertake – considerable process for altering one person’s interest,” Peterson wrote.
     “Wisconsin’s decision to change the selection method for its chief justice in the middle of Abrahamson’s term as justice is undoubtedly disappointing to her and her supporters,” he continued. “The decision may have been unwise, politically motivated, or even unfair to Abrahamson.
     “But the decision to restructure the leadership of the court, immediately, cannot be called irrational, especially given the court’s troubled recent history,” Peterson concludes.
     The case is already before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on the issue of a temporary injunction halting implementation of Roggensack as chief; the defendants have asked that this action be dismissed as moot in light of Friday’s order.
     Throughout the proceedings, Peterson spoke of his certainty that the entire case would be appealed to the 7th Circuit regardless of his decision. No appeals paperwork had been filed by early Monday morning.

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