Longest-Serving Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dies at 87

Then-Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson questions an attorney in 2013. (M.P. King /Wisconsin State Journal via AP, Pool, File)

MILWAUKEE (CN) — Shirley Abrahamson, the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s longest-serving justice and the first woman on the high court, died late Saturday. She was 87.

A trailblazer who broke the gender barrier on Wisconsin’s highest court via appointment by former Governor Patrick Lucey in 1976, Abrahamson served on the court for nearly 43 years, including a record 19 years as chief justice, before stepping down in July 2019 not long after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Abrahamson received praise from many during her career as a leading liberal judicial figure, not the least of which from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who herself died in September, also at the age of 87.

In a videotaped statement from shortly before Abrahamson’s retirement, Ginsburg referred to Abrahamson as “the most courageous and sage” jurist she had ever come across and someone who “contributed enormously to the advancement of women’s opportunities and well-being in the legal profession.”

Born Shirley Schlanger in New York City in 1933 after her parents immigrated from Poland, Abrahamson earned her bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1953. She continued her education at Indiana University, where she earned her law degree at the top of her class in 1956 and met her husband Seymour Abrahamson, a geneticist and professor of zoology who died in 2016.

Abrahamson worked in private practice as the first female member of a Madison law firm and lectured at the University of Wisconsin Law School for almost 15 years before her historic appointment to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Author of more than 450 majority opinions and party to over 1,300 rulings over the course of her tenure on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Abrahamson was considered for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993, according to the Associated Press.

She was long regarded by those her knew her and her work as a champion for civil rights and civil liberties and a forceful advocate for open government, public records and judicial transparency.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin high court became one of the first in the nation to hold administrative meetings publicly while she was chief justice, and in the 1990s she backed a program that brings high school students into the state supreme court hearing room for oral arguments.

Though widely admired for her sharp legal acumen, Abrahamson had her share of critics, particularly among Badger State conservatives. In 2011 she was in the minority of the state’s high court in opposing Wisconsin Act 10, a controversial law signed by Republican former Governor Scott Walker that severely curtailed the rights of public sector unions.

Abrahamson was also ousted as chief justice in 2015 when Republican lawmakers pushed through a constitutional amendment allowing members of the high court to choose the chief justice instead of the title going to the most senior justice. Current Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, a conservative, has served in that role ever since.

News of Abrahamson’s death sparked an outpouring of affection and admiration from Wisconsin public figures.

“Chief Justice Abrahamson was a meticulous jurist and a profound writer who believed in an independent judiciary,” said Governor Tony Evers. “But she was also a champion for a more fair, more equitable state and country, and to that end, worked to hold our laws to account.”

The Democratic governor went on to call Abrahamson “a pillar of our state and the court for generations” and “one of our state’s most extraordinary public servants.”

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said “you didn’t have to know Chief Justice Abrahamson to know that she was brilliant, worked famously long hours in service to the people of Wisconsin, and was dedicated to fairness and justice,” going on to praise her opinions which “shaped our understanding of the law for the better” and “will have an impact for decades to come, as courts look to them for guidance and wisdom in resolving legal issues that have yet to arise.”

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Madison Democrat, praised Abrahamson’s integrity and independence while also nodding at the justice’s renowned work ethic.

“All of us know the stories of that lonely office light on at the state capital, as the chief did her job working late into the night reading briefs and writing opinions,” Baldwin said. “She was a true public servant who lived up to Wisconsin’s work ethic with her hard work doing so much for this state.”

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, perhaps the Badger State’s most powerful Republican, recognized Abrahamson as “an accomplished jurist and a groundbreaker in Wisconsin’s legal community” who “will be remembered for her gifted legal mind and commitment to Wisconsin.”

Abrahamson is survived by her son, Daniel, who practices law in California. The justice had relocated to Berkeley to be closer to him and his family following her retirement.

In a statement she released in 2018 announcing her plan to not run for a potential fifth reelection, Abrahamson stressed that, on or off the bench, her voice and her views would continue to ring out in the Badger State and beyond.

“When I joined the court, I was given a voice—a voice that I have not hesitated to use,” she said. “The best expression of appreciation I can give the people who have elected and repeatedly re-elected 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.”

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