It’s only fair for the state Supreme Court to choose its own chief justice, say the Republican backers of a constitutional amendment that would direct the court to do exactly that.

Wrong, say Democrats, because the amendment is nothing more than a political play to depose liberal-leaning Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who under the current constitutional rule gets the position because she has the most years on the court.

Republicans are undoubtedly looking to make political hay; on a court where conservative justices outnumber the liberal ones 4-3, Abrahamson isn’t going to be winning any elections.

It’s just that who gets the honor and the responsibility of serving as chief justice has little, if anything, to do with what the public cares about most when it comes to the state’s highest court: how it selects and decides cases with wide-ranging, real-life and immediate effects.

“The chief justice really has almost no power over the cases,” said Janine Geske, a former state Supreme Court justice herself and now professor of law at Marquette University.

The position doesn’t come with an extra vote or veto power, and Geske said much of the chief’s work is administrative.

The chief is in charge of the entire state court system, but even here, the power is not absolute. The chief cannot unilaterally change or implement rules on evidence, ethics codes for judges, judicial campaigns or a host of other matters, Geske said.

Wisconsin’s method for assigning a chief justice is unusual among state supreme courts, according to research by the National Center for State Courts, a Virginia-based nonprofit that provides research, consulting and other services to state court systems.

High court justices in 22 states select their own chiefs, governors in 12 states appoint them, seven states elect them, seven states award the position based on seniority and two states use an appointment process.

Democratic state Rep. Gary Hebl of Sun Prairie, a member of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said he isn’t necessarily opposed to allowing Wisconsin’s justices to elect their own leader, and he acknowledges that chief justice is “not a very powerful position.”

But the amendment’s provision to elect a chief every two years injects even more politics into what — in theory at least — is a non-political entity.

Mostly, what bothers him and Geske, who also opposes the amendment, is the notion of changing a 126-year-old constitutional provision because of what they see as a desire to evict one person — Abrahamson — from her leadership role.

“This is just a move to get this current chief justice out of this position,” Geske said.

Hebl said that the people who voted for Abrahamson the last time she was on the ballot in 2009 did so with the understanding that if re-elected, she would be chief for as long as she was on the court. If passed in April, the amendment would take effect immediately, or four years before Abrahamson’s term is up.

“If it’s not an attack on Shirley,” he said of the amendment, “what’s the rush?”

That’s a decent question, and one I wasn’t able to get an answer to from the amendment’s main sponsors, Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst.

I’d think one possible reason is that while Abrahamson might be a great chief justice and a genuinely good person, public servants in a democracy aren’t synonymous with their public offices.

To protect Abrahamson from duly-made constitutional changes to the public office she happens to occupy is just as bad as targeting Abrahamson with constitutional changes to the office she happens to occupy.

That Abrahamson’s fate has triggered such an outcry on the left doesn’t make much sense given that the matter of who holds the chief justice position is a fairly low-stakes affair.

But when you’ve slaughtered as many liberal sacred cows as Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans have over the last four years — public-sector unions, abortion and voting access, education funding — I guess an attack on even one of the lesser sacred calves is going to elicit some angry mooing.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.