— From the Leader-Telegram
A statewide referendum on the April 7 ballot that would change the way the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is chosen isn’t the stuff that will drive voters to the polls, to be sure.
Currently, the longest-serving justice is bestowed the honor of chief justice, a position Justice Shirley Abrahamson has held since 1996. The referendum on April 7 will ask voters to let the seven justices elect the chief justice every two years. It’s worth a try.
Despite claims to the contrary, our state’s high court has become just as political as the races for governor and legislators, even though justices are technically “nonpartisan.” Unofficially, however, in recent times the justices quickly are identified as leaning liberal or conservative and backed accordingly by the various special interests.
This spring’s Supreme Court race is more of the same, with incumbent Ann Walsh Bradley being part of the liberal bloc and challenger James Daley aligned with the conservatives. The winner will serve a 10-year term.
The conservatives hold a 4-3 majority on the court. Abrahamson and Justice Patrick Crooks join Bradley on the liberal bloc, while justices David Prosser, Patience Roggensack, Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman make up the conservative majority.
According to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Wisconsin is one of only six states where the chief justice is chosen based on seniority. Twenty-two states choose their chief justice by peer vote, as is proposed. The governor nominates or appoints the chief justice in 13 states, the taxpayers group notes, and in seven states the decision is left to the voters.
The world isn’t going to end whichever way this vote goes. Proponents of the change say a peer vote would make the court more congenial. That would be welcome given the rancor that has embarrassed the court and the state in several episodes in recent years, although it’s debatable whether having someone other than Abrahamson as chief justice would have made any difference.
Referendum opponents say the move is purely political to embarrass Abrahamson and put a conservative justice at the helm.
It’s hard to have strong feelings either way. But if the referendum passes, perhaps the two sides can collaborate and agree to promote someone both sides see as a strong leader who respects all voices on the court, be that Abrahamson or someone else.
Besides, we all know that what goes around comes around in politics, and labels aside, this is about politics. So if and when the liberal bloc regains control of the court, those justices will hold sway in picking their leader.
It’s hard to argue that the person on the court the longest is the most qualified to be chief justice, so what’s the harm of letting the justices pick their leader? It’s not as if that person gets two votes or wields some other extraordinary powers.
Another plus might be that whomever the conservative bloc picks would have to lead with dignity and respect for the body or risk being ousted two years hence. If nothing else, the biannual vote would bring a bit more attention to a body that most people know far too little about.