By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court will meet “quite soon” to decide who should serve as chief justice now that voters have given them the power to do that, Justice Pat Roggensack said Wednesday.
Wisconsin voters on Tuesday approved an amendment by a 6-point margin reversing 126 years of history that automatically made the most senior member of the Supreme Court the chief justice. The measure was placed on the ballot by the Republican-controlled Legislature, and opponents said it was a clear attempt to remove Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, one of the liberal members of the court.
Roggensack, in an interview with The Associated Press, said no justice has publicly expressed interest in replacing Abrahamson and there’s nothing prohibiting her from retaining the position she’s held since 1996.
But Roggensack said her priority was making the court, which has been in the spotlight for high-profile disputes among the justices in recent years, function better. Roggensack is part of the court’s four-justice conservative majority.
“We have some repair to do, frankly, with the image of the court and I want to work very hard to get that done,” said Roggensack, a member of the court since 2003.
Abrahamson, 81, did not return messages for comment on Tuesday or Wednesday. She has been on the Supreme Court since 1976 and been chief justice since 1996. She is both the longest currently serving chief justice and state Supreme Court member in the country.
There is no doubt that removing Abrahamson was the goal of the amendment, said Janine Geske, a Marquette University law professor and former state Supreme Court justice. Geske, who opposed the amendment, said she suspects conservative justices will move quickly to oust Abrahamson.
Roggensack said justices have not yet met to talk about the process for selecting a new chief but they intend to do that “quite soon.”
“All I know is there are a lot of possibilities and I don’t even know all of them,” Roggensack said. “We’ll try to work through it all and talk about the possibilities of what will be next.”
The chief justice selection amendment doesn’t take effect until after the election’s results are certified by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board. That is expected to happen at the board’s April 29 meeting.
Under the new amendment, the justices have to decide every two years who they want to serve as chief justice. There are no specifics about how that is to be done or when the first decision has to be made.
The chief serves as lead administrator for the state court system, with power to assign judges and justices for cases below the Supreme Court level, designate and assign reserve judges and schedule oral arguments before the high court, among other duties.
Justices are paid $147,403 a year while the chief justice earns $155,403.
Supporters of the change, including the state chamber of commerce, which spent at least $600,000 to get it adopted, argued it’s undemocratic to have the position go automatically to the justice with the most experience.
Justice at Stake, a national judicial watchdog group based in Washington, issued a statement following adoption of the amendment saying a “siege of special interest money” and “big money hardball politics” led to its adoption.
The amount spent by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on the race puts pressure on the justices to replace Abrahamson, said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake.
While 22 other states use some sort of similar selection process, changing from one system to another and replacing the current chief justice is unprecedented, said Bill Raftery, an analyst with National Center for State Courts based in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“There’s nothing comparable,” he said. “This has just not happened before. … It’s exceptional and unique.”
Also on Tuesday, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley won re-election to a second term. She and Abrahamson are generally considered the two most liberal justices on the court.Follow @sbauerAP