Steven Walters
The State of Politics

New Court Majority Changes Target Chief Justice Ziegler

Is it revenge for conservatives' past overthrow of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson?

By - Aug 7th, 2023 02:38 pm
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler. File photo by Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler. File photo by Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

The state Supreme Court’s new four-justice majority last week fired the state court administrator and drafted rules that would create a three-justice committee to run the court system and lay the groundwork to replace Chief Justice Annette Ziegler.

The week ended with the justices fighting over whether the changes were a blow for much-needed integrity or a power grab by four “rogue” justices.

The four liberal justices — Ann Walsh Bradley, Jill Karofsky, Rebecca Frank Dallet and Janet Protasiewicz, who joined the court last Tuesday — insisted that the sweeping changes were reforms needed to make the court “more accessible and accountable.”

The changes, which the four said they expect to approve at a Sept. 7 conference of all seven justices, included creation of a three-justice “administrative committee” – the chief justice and two others – that would make all major budgeting, policy and committee decisions.

That change would usurp authority that now belongs to the chief justice.

One of the changes would require that the chief justice be chosen by the new administrative committee, and ratified by vote of all seven justices, based on “managerial, administrative and leadership abilities.”

If that change is adopted, it could threaten the conservative Ziegler, who was elected for a new two-year term as chief justice in May, one month after Protasiewicz defeated former Justice Dan Kelly.

Ziegler said the four “rogue members of the court met in a secret, unscheduled, illegitimate closed meeting in an attempt to gut the chief justice’s constitutional authority as administrator of the court.”

Court business is conducted during regular conferences called by the chief justice during the court’s official business cycle, which runs from September through June, Ziegler insisted.

“The rogue justices’ attempt to go outside of this recognized procedure is an imposition of will and a raw exercise of overreaching power…[and] illegitimate  and unenforceable,” the chief justice added.

Dallet said Ziegler was asked on May 19 and again on June 23 to schedule a meeting to consider the proposed changes to court operating procedures, but Ziegler refused. Dallet said Ziegler had agreed to hold a Sept. 7 conference, however.

The firing of Court Administrator Randy Koschnick on Tuesday, the day Protasiewicz joined the court, started the controversies. The firing seemed to honor former Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a beloved mentor to the four justices pushing for change.

Abrahamson served on the court for a record-setting 43 years, including almost 19 years as chief justice. The first woman to serve on the court, she championed the careers of women lawyers and judges before retiring in 2019. The feminist legal icon died in December 2020 at the age of 87.

Koschnick, then a veteran Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge, ran against Abrahamson in 2009, calling her an “activist” and a “liberal.” Abrahamson got 59% of the vote.

In 2015, Republican legislators wrote a constitutional amendment aimed at Chief Justice Abrahamson, which voters then ratified. It said the court’s chief justice — that branch of government’s top administrator — would be chosen by the seven justices and no longer only by seniority.

As a result, the court’s four-justice conservative bloc ended Abrahamson’s tenure as chief and named Justice Pat Roggensack, who retired this year, as chief justice.

In November 2016, Roggensack named Koschnick court administrator, making him her chief administrative assistant, starting in July 2017. Abrahamson had to work with someone who tried to oust her from the court for two years.

In an interview with WisPolitics, Koschnick said Karofsky told him he would be fired. “I even said to Justice Karofsky, ‘Has anyone ever complained about anything that I’ve done? Have I done anything below the level of competence?’” Koschnick told WisPolitics. “She said, ‘No, we’re just moving in a different direction’.”

If Ziegler is replaced as chief justice, a likely successor would be Walsh Bradley, the court’s longest-serving member who was mentored by and worked closely with Abrahamson for 24 years. Walsh Bradley, who is 73, administered the oath of office to Protasiewicz and plans to run for a fourth term in 2025.

Somewhere, the four justices must have thought, Shirley Abrahamson is smiling.

Hours after Protasiewicz joined the court, the liberal Law Forward firm asked it to bypass lower courts and invalidate congressional and legislative district boundaries Republicans drew in 2021. During her campaign, Protasiewicz criticized those district lines.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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5 thoughts on “The State of Politics: New Court Majority Changes Target Chief Justice Ziegler”

  1. kmurphy724 says:

    Conservatives cast the die, the liberals are only using it. Karma is a b*tch.

  2. gerrybroderick says:

    Republicans always squeal when the shoe they made for themselves winds up on the the other party’s foot and starts kicking at them. Bradley’s plaintiff whining is simply a matter of reaping what she helped sow.

  3. gerrybroderick says:

    (I meant Ziegler’s whining),

  4. mkwagner says:

    I’m sure Rebecca Bradley is also whining.

  5. kaygeeret says:

    The pearl clutching and the cries of “unfair” are weirdly entertaining.

    Sure hurts when your rules are used against ya’. Tee Hee

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