Shirley Abrahamson Against the World
Chief Justice’s fight against a constitutional change to demote her is a minor issue. So why such a juicy battle involving so many conservatives?
Shirley Abrahamson is not going gently into that good night. The chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, now 81, has been embattled with her colleagues on the court almost since she was first appointed in 1976. And her legal suit — trying to overturn a constitutional amendment that was approved on April 7 by voters — is just the latest example of her take-no-prisoners style.
For 126 years, the justice with the longest tenure has served as chief justice in Wisconsin and that has been Abrahamson since 1996. But Republican legislators twice passed a constitutional amendment that would let justices vote for their choice as chief justice. Given that the court has a conservative majority, the liberal Abrahamson would be displaced. Proponents of the measure have said it’s about displacing seniority with democracy, but declined to make it effective in 2019, when Abrahamson’s term ends, leaving no doubt this was a get-Shirley amendment. As did the haste of Republican lawmakers to get this provision passed. She got the message, and quickly filed suit in federal court, arguing the amendment should not be allowed to go into effect until 2019.
Abrahamson comes from an era when those few women who got ahead in business or law had to over-prove their merit, and she has been doing it ever since. She was the only woman on the supreme court for years, and in the late 1980s, a series by the Milwaukee Journal reported that the six male justices so disliked her they were conspiring to turn down cases she wanted to hear.
Meanwhile, Abrahamson ran rings around her colleagues with an incredible work ethic and brilliantly written opinions. She has long been considered one of the most gifted state supreme court justices in America. She was considered for the U.S. Supreme Court by the Clinton administration and has won many awards, including the first annual Dwight Opperman Award for Judicial Excellence by the American Judicature Society in 2004.
As one of her former law clerks told Milwaukee Magazine in a 1987 story, Abrahamson “will spar over issues and concepts till the cows come home.” And once she is convinced of something, he added, she won’t change her mind. “She’d go to the pillory first.”
Abrahamson’s combative style has alienated both liberal and conservative males on the court, but her women colleagues have generally liked her better. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, a liberal, has been quite friendly with her, and former Justice Janine Geske, a moderate appointed to the court by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, says “I certainly got along with the chief.” Abrahamson reportedly also had a good relationship with conservative former Justice Diane Sykes.
But Abrahamson and Justice Pat Roggensack don’t get along, and the latter, who is very ambitious, pushed legislators to pass the constitutional amendment, as did her fellow conservative Justice Michael Gableman. And Roggensack’s former campaign manager, Brandon Scholz was also treasurer for a group that backed the constitutional amendment.
Proponents of the proposal have argued it will make the court less dysfunctional, but that seems unlikely. Abrahamson will still be combative, Roggensack is no shrinking violet and Justice David Prosser has anger issues that the four most conservative judges have refused to face. Prosser had a famous altercation with Bradley, and while other justices disagree as to whether he tried to choke her, Prosser himself admitted he had his hands on her neck and could feel the warmth of her body. (What a description!) Justice Patrick Crooks, a moderate conservative, told investigators of the incident that Prosser “explodes and storms out of a room” several times a year and his blow-ups go back more than a decade. Crooks met with the court’s human resources director to convey his concern about Prosser’s behavior.
Yet, while the change in selecting the chief justice would likely have little impact, it is being fought over like a world war. Abrahamson’s suit argues that when she ran for reelection in 2009, her campaign committee was called the “Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson Reelection Committee,” and her campaign advertising ended with the tagline, “Wisconsin’s Chief”… making it clear to voters this was a vote to continue her in the office of chief justice,” not just as a justice. The recently passed amendment, her suit notes, did not give any indication that the change in how to select the chief justice would be “retroactive,” neutralizing their vote making her chief justice for another ten-year term.
But Washington D.C. based attorney David B. Rivkin, Jr., who filed a motion to dismiss Abrahamson’s suit, notes there were many news stories about the amendment explaining it would displace her as chief justice, so voters should have known this. The entrance of Rivkin into this dispute is quite revealing. He has been the attorney hired by conservative Eric O’Keefe, whose Wisconsin Club for Growth was targeted by the stalled John Doe probe investigating alleged coordination between the election campaign of Gov. Scott Walker and independent advocacy groups like Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
O’Keefe has argued that the John Doe investigation is an abusive infringement of his freedom of speech and has paid Rivkin to instigate a legal reign of terror, filing various lawsuits against Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who launched the Doe probe, and the state Government Accountability Board, which was also involved for a time in the investigation. O’Keefe also sits on the board of and probably helps fund the Citizens for Self Governance, which paid Rivkin to represent the Milwaukee based group, Citizens for Responsible Government, in a suit that claimed Chisholm and company engaged in “domestic spying.”
Now the CRG, a longtime ally of Walker, is being represented by Rivkin in his filing contesting Abrahamson’s suit, and asking to intervene in the case so they can make arguments against it. Rivkin is once again being paid by the Citizens for Self Governance, according to Chris Kliesmet of CRG.
But U.S. District Judge James Peterson, who is handling the Abrahamson suit, refused to let CRG participate in the case. He found that Attorney General Brad Schimel, who is representing the state, would adequately represent the opposition to Abrahamson’s suit.
The rapid entrance of O’Keefe’s lawyer Rivkin into this dispute may tell us a lot. I have been told there are Republicans who have theorized that Abrahamson is behind the John Doe probe, which might be the ultimate in weird conspiracy theories. But Abrahamson, as chief justice, does have the power to assign judges and justices for cases below the Supreme Court level and to designate and assign reserve judges — and that could affect which judges get involved in something like the Doe probe. This might help explain O’Keefe’s interest in this dispute and also explain why it’s so important that the constitutional change not be pushed back to 2019.
Meantime, an even more fanciful theory was hatched by the conservative Wisconsin Reporter, an online publication whose funding came from another group O’Keefe ran, and which has written nearly 200 stories bashing the John Doe probe. The publication wrote a story implying that Abrahamson might be getting a special deal from the lawyer (Robert Peck) that she hired, whom the publication noted is on the board of Justice at Stake, which gets funding from wealthy liberal George Soros. “If Abrahamson cannot explain her use of Peck’s services it could raise ethical questions,” the publication charged.
And if Abrahamson wins, her legal costs in hiring Peck will have to be repaid by the State of Wisconsin.
It is truly remarkable what a huge cast of characters has gotten involved to make sure this small change in the Supreme Court’s operation was made, which will have little impact other than to punish Abrahamson and give Roggensack a victory over her.
Meanwhile, there is no concern whatsoever about the astonishing conflict of interest for the four most conservative members of the Supreme Court. As I’ve written, all four have declined to recuse themselves from deciding whether the John Doe probe should be shut down, despite the fact the two parties to the case, the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, are parties to the case who could potentially face criminal charges. These two groups together spent $7.6 million to help elect these four justices, providing 76 percent of the support for Prosser, 69 percent of support for Gableman, 59 percent of the spending for Ziegler and 48 percent for Roggensack. If these justices vote to kill the Doe, the clear message will be that “justice” was purchased for $7.6 million.
But the good news is that Shirley will have been punished for being so outspoken.
Update April 17, 10:10 a.m: Justice Patrick Crooks, the most unpredictable member of the supreme court, came out late yesterday bashing Abrahamson for fighting the constitutional change and said she has become “a laughingstock.” It’s unusual for Crooks to be outspoken. But Crooks also said he was interested in becoming the new chief justice and framed himself as an alternative to Roggensack. Back in 1999, Crooks was part of a bloc of four justices that aggressively challenged Abrahamson’s leadership.