Getting Educated on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court

Getting Educated on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court

2015 | Week of January 12 – #1080

Once a teacher always a teacher. So indulge me and take this quick civics quiz. First question, how many justices serve on Wisconsin’s State Supreme Court? If you said, 7, you got it right. Next question: are supreme court justices elected or appointed in Wisconsin? If you said, elected, go to the head of the class.  A follow-up question: how long is a term of office for a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice? Answer: That’s a 10 year term, the longest term of office in our state.

Just two more questions…who is the current chief justice of Wisconsin’s supreme court? If you responded with Shirley Abrahamson, you are among the best of the best in Wisconsin’s civics!  Final question, how does a justice become chief justice on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court?  This one really separates the civics experts from the rest…in Wisconsin, the justice who has been on the State Supreme Court the longest is the chief justice.  

I can’t tell you how very much I hope you could answer correctly those 5 questions. Our state supreme court has a direct impact on us and our families. It, along with the rest of the state-level judiciary system, forms the third branch of our state government—a co-equal, independent branch, at that.  Unfortunately, experience tells me far too many adult citizens, even those who faithfully vote, know very little about the highest court in our state, the Supreme Court.

It’s my hope that the soon-coming Spring Non-partisan Elections will help you—or at least encourage you—to get better informed about the State Supreme Court.  In April every ballot statewide will have a Supreme Court race. The candidates are the incumbent Ann Walsh Bradley and her challenger Judge Jim Daley. Justice Bradley, according to most court observers, is part of the liberal group of justices on the Supreme Court.

Justice Bradley has been on the court 20 years and is running for her third 10-year term.  Judge Daley has been a judge in Rock County since 1989 and in 2013 was appointed as the chief judge of Branch 5 of the Circuit Courts. Both candidates have websites and I urge you to check those out: and As the election nears, Wisconsin Family Council will have educational voter information on this race.

In addition to this seat on the Supreme Court, I believe every voter will also have a referendum on the spring ballot related to how we select a chief justice for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  When our constitution was ratified in 1848, the decision was made that the person who had been on the court the longest should be the chief justice.

The presumption with this approach is that, theoretically, the longer a justice is on the supreme court, the better he or she becomes judicially and administratively. Whether or not that’s true is at the heart of the issue as voters weigh in on this issue this spring. Chief justice is an important position, acting as the administrator of the entire Wisconsin court system, while also having a great deal of authority in the Supreme Court.

Consider this as you think about the issue. The current chief justice, Shirley Abrahamson, who is 81 years old, has been on the court 38 years and has been chief justice the last 18 of those 38 years.  Her current term of office is up in 2019. Only one other Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice served longer and that was for 21 years.  The average term of service as chief justice for the 26 different chief justices we’ve had is just under 7 years.

The referendum would ask voters if they want to amend the state constitution to have a chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court elected by and from among the7 justices on the court. The justice elected would serve as chief justice for 2 years and could not serve more than 3 consecutive two-year terms in that capacity.  This bill is on a fast track to be ready for the spring ballot. I hope you’re ready!

We began with a civics quiz on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Whether you did well or not on that quiz, I hope you’re more educated now and will become even more well educated on our state supreme court between now and April when you’ll be asked to make decisions that will affect you and your family for a long time. Remember: Your vote matters and elections have very real consequences.

This is Julaine Appling with Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

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