From the Janesville Gazette, Jan. 7
Irony filled Monday’s Associated Press photo of Gov. Scott Walker again taking the oath of office. Overseeing the ceremony was Shirley Abrahamson, chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Now back to work, Walker’s fellow Republicans are itching to exercise their conservative chops. They control both houses of the Legislature and believe Walker will sign most any bill they pass. They’d like Abrahamson to be as good as gone.
When she was appointed in 1976, Abrahamson became the first woman on the high court. She won election in 1979 and has been re-elected since. She has served longer than any justice in state history. She is highly intelligent but also can be abrasive. She leads the court’s liberal minority. Conservatives blame her for using her position to play politics and delay certain cases. Many also blame her for dysfunction that hit an embarrassing low in 2011 when an argument between conservative Justice David Prosser and liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley got physical.
At the least, Republicans want Abrahamson ousted as chief justice. They would do so by amending the state constitution. The proposal would let the justices, rather than longevity, determine who leads the high court. Republicans passed this legislation in 2013 and must approve it again in this session. If they do so soon, it could go to voters in a statewide referendum April 7.
A reasonable argument can be made for that measure — no pun intended.
However, another proposal that would remove Abrahamson from the court seems undemocratic. Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, wants a mandatory retirement age for justices of 75 but claims he’s not trying to nudge out Abrahamson. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he’s only trying to uphold the state constitution. An old provision required judges to step down soon after turning 70. Voters in 1977 amended the constitution to let the Legislature set a retirement age. But for some unexplained reason, it has never done so.
Here’s the thing. Abrahamson is 81. Yet voters in 2009 elected her to another 10-year term knowing her age. Speaking of playing politics, if lawmakers arrogantly pass legislation that, instead of grandfathering sitting justices, would oust her before her term ends, they might anger voters who support the will of the people. Suggestions in recent years that justices should be appointed rather than elected have riled liberal and conservative residents alike. They cherish the opportunity to choose justices in the voting booth.
Here’s another thing Republicans should consider: Bradley will seek a third term in April, and Rock County Judge James Daley is challenging her. Conservative groups are lining up behind Daley. However, he’s 67. If he’s elected and lawmakers mandate retirement at 75, he would have to step down three years before his term concluded.
In recent decades, life expectancies have surged amid improving medical care. With age comes the knowledge and wisdom to make intelligent decisions about the types of complex issues these justices must consider.
The high court is supposed to serve as our nonpartisan, independent branch of state government. Still, it’s worth debating whether a retirement mandate of 75 or 80 is appropriate for justices. But if Republicans approve a measure to oust Abrahamson before her term ends, it might backfire on them at the polls.