Justice Shirley Abrahamson at an event celebrating her 50th year in the State Bar on September 6, 2006. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society
On Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Historical Society jointly honored the career and service of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who was the first woman on the state’s high court. She was also the longest serving justice in Wisconsin history from her appointment in 1976 to her retirement in 2019 after she announced the year prior that she was being treated for cancer.
Abrahamson was chief justice for 19 of those 43 years and the only woman justice from her appointment until 1993.
“Over her 43 years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Chief Justice Abrahamson was a champion for our judicial and legal institutions and served with an unwavering commitment to independence and fair application of the law,” said Evers in a statement Tuesday. “She has inspired many, being the first woman to serve on the bench and as chief justice, and served as a role model for countless women and young people to pursue careers in law and public service.”
Evers issued an executive order honoring her service and re-naming the reading room at the State Historical Society as “The Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson Reading Room,” to remind the public “of her legacy for generations to come and a symbol of our deep appreciation for her years of public service to our state.”
At a 2019 program honoring Abrahamson at the State Capitol before her July retirement, she received a video tribute from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, her longtime friend (and once her competitor on President Bill Clinton’s shortlist to replace U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White in 1993).
“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,” said Ginsberg, who also praised Abrahamson’s many contributions toward advancing women in the legal profession. Ginsberg added: “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. She never forgets Dr. Seuss’ gentle maxim: ‘A person’s a person no matter how small.’”
Evers’ executive order — his 83rd such order — also stated that, “over the course of her extraordinary tenure, Justice Abrahamson issued hundreds of opinions and dissents, and never wavered from her sworn commitment to impartiality, the protection of individual rights, and the equal application of justice.”
Abrahamson ended her speech at last year’s gathering — after receiving praise from many politicians and judges of all political persuasions — saying, “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.”
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The Library Reading Room at the State Historical Society was completed in 1901 and restored in 2010 and was a place Abrahamson, known for her ethic of hard work that kept her Capitol light on until early morning hours, was often found during more regular hours. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, “The bright, airy, 5,568-square-foot, two-story high architectural centerpiece offers a comfortable place to study or do research. Chief Justice Abrahamson frequented the Library Reading Room as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and throughout her career.”
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