Ousted WI Chief Justice Denied Temporary Relief

     MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A woman contesting her recent ouster as chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court failed Friday to secure reinstatement of the status quo.
     Though Shirley Abrahamson’s term as chief – a position she has held based on a seniority system since 1996 – was not scheduled to end until 2019, a ballot measure narrowly passed by voters on April 7 threw Wisconsin’s highest state court into an upheaval by adopting a vote-based selection system.
     Abrahamson filed a federal complaint, alleging that the ballot measure deprived her of property rights to her chief status and accompanying salary, but U.S. District Judge James Peterson denied Abrahamson an injunction at a hearing Friday.
     When Peterson had previously denied Abrahamson a restraining order, the court employed the new vote system for the first time last month and tapped Justice Patience Drake Roggensack, considered a member of the court’s conservative majority, to replace Abrahamson as chief.
     Peterson said Friday that Roggensack’s service in that position for the next few months while Abrahamson’s challenge advances will not cause irreparable harm to either former chief justice, the court system or Wisconsin’s citizens.
     “There’s really nothing that I can do by an order that would make things better at the Supreme Court,” Peterson told a half-full courtroom on Friday.
     Claiming that his court was plagued by “uncertainty and turmoil,” Justice Patrick Crooks had asked Judge Peterson earlier this week to enact a transitional plan addressing the “chaotic situation.” Crooks had been one of three justices to abstain from the vote that elected Roggensack.
     Peterson said he took Crooks’ letter seriously, but noted that any order from a federal judge dictating protocol to a state court would be unhelpful, particularly considering the lack of potential differences in Roggensack’s leadership over Abrahamson.
     “I don’t see that there’s any kind of radical change in the direction of the court,” he said.
     During Friday’s hearing, Kevin St. John, the attorney for all remaining judges except Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, smiled to himself and looked incredulously at Abrahamson’s attorney, Robert Peck, as the latter argued that the public had a right to an orderly transition between chief justices.
     Peck said the four who elected Roggensack acted out of self-interest.
     St. John said Roggensack has since her election been performing the duties of chief justice, including running meetings in her official capacity.
     While discretionary programs of the court are now under Roggensack’s control, there is no evidence in the record that she intends to change them, he added.
     A temporary injunction decision is appealable, but Peck told reporters after the hearing that it would be “premature” for him to state his intentions before talking to his clients.
     Peterson renewed his commitment to quickly resolving the case as a matter of law with stipulated facts, stating he would convert the defendants’ motion for dismissal to a motion for summary judgment and agree a briefing schedule through July 1.

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