Today is the last day on the Wisconsin Supreme Court for Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the longest-serving justice in state history and a pathbreaker who opened the way for women in the legal profession.
At a farewell ceremony on June 18, former Gov. Jim Doyle remembered when his father first hired Justice Abrahamson, the former chief justice, and made her a partner at his law firm, LaFollette & Sinykin. Hiring a woman as a law partner seems normal now, Doyle noted, but “it was not normal in those days.”
Doyle also told a joke about the time Abrahamson, a close family friend, offered to bring chicken soup to his mother when she was ill. “She showed up at the door with a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup,” he said. That anecdote was reminiscent of jokes about Abrahamson’s friend U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was teased by her husband and children for her lack of culinary ability in the film RBG.
The Notorious RBG herself made a video appearance at Justice Abrahamson’s sendoff in the Capitol last month, telling the crowd, ““Among jurists I have encountered in the United States and abroad, Shirley Abrahamson is the very best, the most courageous and sage, the least self-regarding.”
“In her 40 years and more on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court as justice, then chief justice, she has been ever mindful of the people, all of the people the law exists—or should exist—to serve,” Justice Ginsberg added. “She never forgets Dr. Seuss’ gentle maxim: ‘A person’s a person no matter how small.’”
Former Justice Diane Sykes, a conservative, said of Abrahamson, “She warmly welcomed me when I arrived in 1999. That warmth, and the spirit of shared commitment to the important work of the Court, continued throughout our time together, and for that I am most grateful.”
“We agreed on many cases, disagreed on some, and the strength of her work always made mine better,” Sykes said.
In recent years, that spirit of collegiality has waned, as the divisiveness and partisanship on the court have grown.
In 2017, Abrahamson opposed the majority’s decision to stop holding open sessions to discuss the Court’s rules and procedures.
The incivility on the Court was on full display in that last open meeting, as then-Justice Michael Gableman spoke contemptuously to Abrahamson, calling her argument for Wisconsin’s tradition of open meetings “hypocrisy” and referring to his colleague Justice Ann Walsh Bradley as “Miss Sunshine.”
In recent years a majority on the court voted down ethics rules that would have required that they recuse themselves from cases involving their own campaign donors. The majority demoted Abrahamson from her post as chief justice after a statewide referendum ending the practice of nominating the chief justice based on seniority passed with Republican support.
Still, Abrahamson persevered.
John Nichols of the Capital Times and The Nation noted at the June ceremony that Abrahamson grew up in New York City, the child of holocaust survivors. “She knew, she understood, the danger of dividing people along lines of religion, ethnicity, race or class,” he said.
That perspective informed many of Abrahamson’s decisions, including her dissent in a case involving Wisconsin’s voter ID law.
The Wisconsin Constitution expressly forbids the state Legislature from passing any law that “impairs or destroys the right to vote,” Abrahamson pointed out in arguments on voter ID before the Court. She brought up her father, a naturalized U.S. citizen who proudly voted in every election but didn’t drive and couldn’t get a copy of his birth certificate from the country he fled when he came here. “Where does he fit in?” she asked.
In her farewell remarks, Abrahamson declared, “The need for an independent judiciary both in this state and in the country has never been greater.”
“As partisan sentiment escalates, beyond productive to poisonous, so, too, does the importance of a neutral and fair judicial branch at every level.
“From 1789 in Philadelphia to 1848 in Wisconsin, all the way to today, too much is at stake not to believe in an independent judiciary,” she concluded.