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Amendment would change chief justice selection (UPDATE)

By Eric Heisig

A proposed constitutional amendment that would change the way the Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice is selected is up for discussion Thursday at a state Senate committee hearing.

The proposal is being circulated by state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. He said the bill most likely will be introduced early next week, in advance of the Senate’s Committee on Judiciary and Labor hearing.

Currently, the chief justice is based on seniority. The proposal would require that the chief justice instead be selected by a majority of the seven justices serving on the court. The election would happen every two years and the chief justice would be limited to no more than three consecutive terms.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson has been on the court since 1976 and has been chief justice since 1996. Prior to that, former Justice Nathan Heffernan served as chief from 1983 to 1995.

Tiffany said he is looking for co-sponsors on the bill. Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, will sponsor the bill in the Assembly.

Tiffany said he made the proposal after looking at the way other states handle the appointment of the chief justice and realizing only five other states handle it the way Wisconsin does. He said he also took into consideration how the chief judge in the state’s judicial administrative districts are appointed, and not selected by seniority.

Tiffany said the move would give the justices a chance to democratically elect their chief justice, and to take into account other factors that could lead to a new leader.

“I think this gives the justices the ability to say ‘OK I think seniority is important, experience is important, but there are a couple other things that are also important,’” he said.

The measure would have to pass two consecutive legislative sessions and be approved by a vote of the people statewide before taking effect.

A similar proposal was introduced in the Senate in July 2011 by former Sen. Rich Zipperer and in the Assembly in March 2012 by Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva. Both proposals died in committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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