Lifetime Achievement Award
If you look up “indefatigable” in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s name appears among the usage examples.
“That’s a good word to begin to set the stage in describing her,” said Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who served on the state Supreme Court with Abrahamson for 24 years. “As a friend, she was generous. She was self-sacrificing. She had a great wit and was fun, while at the same time, she was very serious and intense.”
Abrahamson, who had battled pancreatic cancer toward the end of her life, died in December, just two days after her 87th birthday. The former chief justice, known for her intellect and work habits, left behind a legacy that continues to shape courts in Wisconsin and throughout the country.
Her career was one of many firsts and milestones, but her achievements didn’t come without difficulties. In a 2018 lecture at UW Law School, Abrahamson recalled the obstacles she encountered as a woman starting her legal career in the 1950s. She graduated at the top of her law school class in 1956. But the school dean, who would usually find top students a spot at the largest firm in Indianapolis, said he couldn’t place her there.
“I said that was OK because I didn’t want to go to Indianapolis, so we were even,” she said during that 2018 lecture. “They just didn’t want to hire a woman.”
Abrahamson went on to carve a path for herself in Wisconsin, and in doing so, paved the way for generations of women lawyers to come. In 1976, she became the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the first female chief justice in 1996. Abrahamson is the longest-serving justice in the state, dedicating 43 years of her career to the high court.
Abrahamson is estimated to have written 530 majority opinions, 490 dissenting opinions and 325 concurring opinions during her time on the bench, according to statistics compiled by Marquette University History professor Alan Ball.
“Her opinions, of course, leave a tremendous legacy for her, but I also want to note that her administrative leadership … was quite monumental,” Bradley said. “Under her tenure, Wisconsin became a leader in administration and innovation, and she really believed in having open and accessible courts.”
Abrahamson’s legacy extends across state lines and goes beyond her years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In a two-volume encyclopedia of the 100 greatest jurists in U.S. history, Abrahamson is listed among the likes of John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes and other pillars of America’s legal system.
The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also a friend of Abrahamson’s, recognized Abrahamson’s deep regard for the law and everyone it serves during Abrahamson’s retirement ceremony in 2019.
“Among jurists I have encountered in the United States and abroad, Shirley Abrahamson is the very best, the most courageous and sage,” Ginsburg said. “As a lawyer, law teacher and judge, she has inspired legions to follow in her way to strive constantly to make the legal system genuinely equal and accessible to all who dwell in our fair land.”
One of Abrahamson’s favorite quotes was, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bradley said Abrahamson would add the caveat that “it only bends that way if we are steadfast in our commitment to equality and justice.”
“The fight always continues,” Bradley said. “There may be naysayers along the way or setbacks that we encounter, but that long arc, the moral universe does bend towards justice as long as we stay committed to the values which really have encompassed her tenure on the court and her career.”