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State’s Supreme Court chief justice selection change near (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Shirley Abrahamson, just as she has every day since Aug. 1, 1996, walked into the Wisconsin Supreme Court chamber on Tuesday and took her position in the center as chief justice.

But shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, Abrahamson may be forced out of the position she’s held longer than any other currently serving chief justice in the country.

The Wisconsin elections board is scheduled to certify results of the April 7 election, including a voter-approved constitutional amendment giving justices the power to select who is chief justice. Abrahamson has been chief the past 19 years because the position had gone automatically to the most senior member.

Abrahamson, 81, filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the change shouldn’t be implemented until after her current term ends in four years. The next hearing is set for May 15, and in the meantime U.S. District Judge James Peterson has urged justices not to act quickly in replacing Abrahamson.

“The state would be well-served to have as few changes in chief justice as possible,” Peterson said last week.

Most of the chief justice’s duties are administrative and ceremonial, but the person does serve as the head of the state court system. The chief justice’s vote holds no more sway on the court than any other justice.

Five of the six other justices contend that once the vote is certified Wednesday morning, there is no chief justice until a new one is selected, attorney Kevin St. John has said and reiterated Tuesday. He declined further comment.

Four of the five justices represented by St. John are part of a conservative majority on the court and are expected to vote to replace Abrahamson. However, they have not said when a vote may take place. The fifth justice, Patrick Crooks, is seen as a swing vote but he has been critical of Abrahamson’s lawsuit.

Justice Pat Roggensack, one of the four conservative justices, declined to comment Tuesday on whether they had talked about when to vote on who should be chief justice.

“I really can’t talk to you about that,” she said.

A sixth justice, Ann Walsh Bradley, is an ally of Abrahamson’s and is representing herself in the case. Bradley has not said why she chose to represent herself, and she declined to comment Tuesday.

Abrahamson did not immediately return a message seeking comment, and neither did her attorney.

The court had no oral arguments or other public meetings on its calendar following Tuesday’s hearing. It’s nearing the end of its term for the year and most of the work left will occur behind the scenes as justices work on written decisions for cases heard earlier this year.

It makes sense that Abrahamson remain as chief justice until her lawsuit is resolved, said Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and current professor at Marquette University Law School.

“I don’t think there’s a vacancy there,” Geske said, disagreeing with the five justices’ interpretation of the new amendment.

Because of the administrative work that does need to get done, Geske said going without a chief for any period of time “doesn’t make much sense.”

Ed Fallone, a Marquette law professor who unsuccessfully ran for the state Supreme Court in 2013, said it would make the most sense to wait until when its next term begins in August to select a new chief justice, should Abrahamson’s lawsuit fail.

Replacing Abrahamson now, or asserting that there is no chief justice, “seems pointless and needlessly provocative,” Fallone said.

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