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Workers’ comp cases could affect chief justice lawsuit

A recent decision from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals could have an effect on the outcome of Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s lawsuit disputing her removal from the position of chief justice.

The five state Supreme Court justices who are defendants in the lawsuit filed a motion Monday stating that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals had issued a decision that supports their contention that Abrahamson’s right to due process was not violated by the immediate application of a constitutional amendment that resulted in Abrahamson losing the title of chief justice. That amendment, approved by voters on April 7, ended the court’s long-standing practice of automatically granting the top spot to the justice with the most seniority.

The chief justice is now elected every two years by the members of the court.

The two cases cited by the defendants in Abrahamson’s lawsuit originated in Illinois. Both Dibble vs. Quinn and Akemann v. Quinn involved arbitrators with the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Committee whose six-year terms had been ended when the Illinois Legislature passed changes to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act in 2011. Like Abrahamson, the two argued that their due-process rights had been violated when the newly enacted laws cut their terms short.

The two arbitrators filed separate lawsuits against then-Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and all the members of the compensation committee.

According to the decision released Monday, the arbitrators had a protected interest in their positions only until July, 1, 2011, the date the act shortening their terms took effect. Moreover, the court contended that the act had been applied prospectively and to all arbitrators, rather than just certain ones.

“Plaintiffs ask us to ignore these features of the legislation,” wrote 7th Circuit Court Judge David Hamilton, “and instead to divine whether (the 2011 reforms to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act) was really motivated by the intent to remove certain individuals. … Plaintiffs’ reliance on employment discrimination cases to justify a judicial inquiry into legislative motive is misplaced.”

The decision affirmed rulings by lower courts. Still, Hamilton wrote that the decision was not meant to be far reaching.

“We express no view on whether a plaintiff in other circumstances might be able to make out a constitutional claim,” according to the decision. “We hold only that plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate a clearly established right that was violated by legislation ending their six‐year terms as arbitrators.”

That message has not stopped the defendants in Abrahamson’s lawsuit: Justices Patrick Crooks, Michael Gableman, David Prosser, Pat Roggensack and Annette Ziegler. In light of the decision handed down Monday, they are asking the court to award them summary judgment.

About Erika Strebel,

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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