Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson announced Wednesday that she will not seek re-election in 2019.
“It is the right decision for me,” Abrahamson said in a press release. “More importantly, it is the right decision for the state. I will encourage qualified candidates to seek election and to do so in a way that honors the independent and non-partisan tradition of the judicial branch in Wisconsin—though that tradition has been tested too often.”
Abrahamson, 84 years old, is currently the longest-serving justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She was appointed by Democratic Governor Patrick Lucey in 1976 as the first female justice on the court. She has since been re-elected four times.
A critic of Abrahamson’s liberal judicial philosophy, Attorney Rick Esenberg, President of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, commented on Abrahamson’s long service on the court.
“While we disagreed on certain cases, there’s no doubt she had a strong impact on the Court for years,” Esenberg said. “We respect her service to the state of Wisconsin and wish her good health in retirement.”
Abrahamson became the first female chief justice in 1996, serving in that position until the state constitution was changed in a referendum allowing the justices to choose their own chief justice rather than it being awarded by seniority. Abrahamson sued unsuccessfully in federal court in 2015 to try to hold onto the chief justice position, claiming it was an unfair taking of her right to hold the office.
Abrahamson’s tenure has been contentious, even alienating liberal allies on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In 1989, Justice William Bablitch, a fellow liberal, joined three other Supreme Court Justices in endorsing her opponent Sharron Rose in an unsuccessful effort to be rid of her.
With Abrahamson’s announced intention to leave the court, Wisconsin’s liberals are at risk of losing the gain they made with the election of the liberal Rebecca Dallet in April to replace conservative Justice Michael Gableman. Dallet’s election means the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court will shrink from 5-2 to 4-3 when she takes the bench.
Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn, generally perceived to be a conservative, has already said publicly that he was giving serious consideration to running in 2019 for the Supreme Court before Abrahamson’s announcement Wednesday.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Hagedorn wished Abrahamson well in her decision to retire when her term ended.
“I wish her all the best and it’s important that the court could rest in good hands going forward,” Hagedorn said.
Hagedorn also looked ahead to the election in 2019.
“We need a justice who, for the next justice, who will respect the rule of law and protect the public,” Hagedorn said. “If it’s not her, then that conversation needs to happen about who the next justice is going to be. I am obviously having those conversations right now with lots of people and I think people are excited for a change on the court.”
Appeals Court Judge Lisa Neubauer is also reportedly considering running for the Supreme Court to replace Abrahamson. In a statement Wednesday, Neubauer, who was appointed to the Appeals Court by former Governor Jim Doyle, said she will be making an announcement quickly after consulting with friends and family.