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0646, 18 Mar 15

Electing the Chief Justice

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

The April election offers the voters of Wisconsin the opportunity to amend the state constitution to allow for the election of the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. This proposed amendment has created far more controversy than such a minor change warrants.

Under the state constitution, all of the justices to the Wisconsin Supreme Court are elected. Among the elected justices, the chief justice is not elected. The job simply goes to the longest serving justice on the court. Justice Shirley Abrahamson has served as the chief justice since 1996.

After passing two different legislatures, the following proposal is being put to the voters on the April ballot: “Election of chief justice. Shall section 4 (2) of article VII of the constitution be amended to direct that a chief justice of the supreme court shall be elected for a twoyear term by a majority of the justices then serving on the court?”

That is fairly straightforward. The Assembly elects its speaker and leadership. The Senate elects its Majority Leader and the rest of the leadership. It makes little sense that the chief justice should be selected by seniority rather than being elected by his or her peers.

The controversy over this proposed amendment lies in the makeup of the current court. Abrahamson is a member of the liberal — and minority — faction of the court. Her fellow liberals are accusing the Republicans, who control the Legislature and passed this proposed amendment, of using the amendment process as an attack on Abrahamson. Rooted in that accusation is the fact that Abrahamson is not well-liked by her fellow justices and will likely be ousted as the chief justice if they are given the opportunity to elect their leader.

While Abrahamson is no friend of conservatives or Republicans and there are surely a few supporters of this amendment who would take no small pleasure in seeing Abrahamson ousted from her post, that would be an incredibly short-sighted motivation for amending the state constitution. The real drivers for this amendment are far more practical, and less exciting, than vengeful Republicans trying to smite their enemies.

One must remember that the duties of the chief justice are not that huge. Much like the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a number of administrative duties in running the court. He or she also has the senior privilege to author opinions. That is about it. The role of chief justice is mostly just about the prestige of the position. The chief justice does not have any impact on what cases the court will hear or how they will be decided. In fact, the chief justice has far less influence on the actual outcomes from the court’s work than the respective leaders of the houses of the legislature.

Since the primary role of the chief justice is the administrative running of the court, why shouldn’t the justices elect the person the handle that? If the justices are not satisfied with the competent running of the court, they can choose someone else. Frankly, administrative competence has little to do with judicial ideology.

Whether the chief justice is elected, appointed, selected or chosen at random will have no effect on how the court rules on the cases before it. Allowing the justices to elect their chief will allow them the same right to choose their leader as afforded to members of the legislature. It is an appropriate emendation to our constitution that will have lasting benefits well beyond the tenure of the current chief justice.

(Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident.)


0646, 18 March 2015


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