Headed by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court certainly is excessively partisan. The past three months alone have featured reports of name-calling, a physical confrontation in the Capitol and Abrahamson’s blistering budget-repair dissent that was, in part, an unseemly personal attack on Justice David Prosser.
For a much longer period of time, the political and pundit classes have expressed concern about the partisan nastiness of high court races that now attract large amounts of special-interest money. Most recently, Prosser survived a vicious union-led challenge that would have given a new liberal majority the ability to undo key aspects of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s legislative agenda.
And so, we now have a bipartisan legislative effort — led by Sens. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, and Tim Cullen, D-Janesville — to take the selection of Supreme Court justices out of the hands of state voters. Schultz and Cullen are proposing a change to the Wisconsin Constitution that would require justices to be appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate.
While we understand their concern about the ability of the court to function responsibly and with the trust of state residents, Schultz and Cullen should reconsider a sweeping approach to a problem that is more precisely traceable to the way the chief justice is selected.
In a column on the following page, Mike Nichols of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute notes that the real source of court dysfunction is a failure of leadership by Abrahamson, who has served 15 turbulent years as chief justice and has offered no indication that she intends to leave anytime soon. She has been criticized by liberals and conservatives alike in recent weeks, and former colleagues have described her as an arrogant ideologue whose toxic management style is guided by a blind hostility to court conservatives.
Currently, the chief justice title goes to the justice who has served longest on the court. But seniority alone does not guarantee competence, as we have seen with Abrahamson. It makes more sense, therefore, to allow the justices themselves to choose their leader, who would necessarily have to demonstrate an ability to manage the court in good faith, and in a manner that encourages professional conduct among all its members.
Schultz and Cullen should redirect their efforts to amend the state Constitution. An amendment is necessary, but it should help ensure the selection of a capable chief justice, rather than eliminate the right of Wisconsin voters to determine who sits on the state’s most important court.
Read more on the Outlook and Perspective pages of CSI's Walworth County Sunday e-edition on pages 8A and 9A. and add your comments below.