Selecting a Chief Justice Wisconsin-Style

Selecting a Chief Justice Wisconsin-Style

2015 | Week of March 23 – #1090

Does doing something the longest automatically make you the best at what you’re doing? Obviously not.  Except apparently when it comes to how we select a chief justice for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.

For 126 years, the chief justice of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has been the justice who has been on the court the longest. In 1889, the citizens of Wisconsin amended our state constitution to include that provision.  And it’s been that way ever since.

Personally I believe in 1889 that might have been a reasonable idea. After all, people back then didn’t see public service as a lifetime vocation. That approach has grown more popular in the intervening years.

At this point, only 8 states select the chief justice of their state supreme court based on tenure. Wisconsin has the opportunity in two weeks to join the vast majority of the states.

Our State Supreme Court is comprised by law of 7 justices—and as indicated, the one who has been on the court is currently by default the chief justice, whether or not the other justices think that person is the best qualified.

The chief justice in Wisconsin does much more than administer the Supreme Court. According to our state constitution the chief justice not only has authority in the Supreme Court but has enormous authority over how our state courts operate.  Who serves as chief justice is of great consequence.

On Tuesday, April 7, all Wisconsin voters will have on their ballot two statewide issues: a race for a seat on the Supreme Court and a referendum dealing with how we select a chief justice for that court.

The candidates for Supreme Court are incumbent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley who is running for her third consecutive 10-year term. Justice Bradley is currently the second-longest-serving justice on the high court behind 81-year-old Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson who has been on the court 39 years and has been chief justice 19 of those years.  Justice Bradley is being challenged by Rock County Circuit Court Judge James Daley.

The referendum on selecting the chief justice that will also be on everyone’s ballot will read “Question 1: Election of Chief Justice. Shall section 4 (2) of Article VII of the constitution be amended to direct that a chief justice of the supreme court shall be elected for a two-year term by a majority of the justices then serving on the court?”

That’s the proposal passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and now given to we the people to vote on. Essentially the question is do we want to keep things as they are related to selection of the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, or do we want to let the justices who are on the court select for themselves, from among themselves, the chief justice?

According to the Government Accountability Board and the Attorney General’s office, a “yes” vote on this amendment means that the voter wants to change how we currently select a chief justice and agrees that the justices on the Supreme Court electing their own chief justice from among themselves is a good idea. Our state constitution would be amended accordingly.

A “no” vote means that the voter wants things to remain as they are—the longest-serving member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court serves as chief justice.

Is it time to change our state constitution on this? Does being on the court the longest make a justice the best choice for the important job of being chief justice? Or is it time for a change? It’s up to you and me to decide. Wisconsin Family Council has prepared an educational voter guide for the judicial race and the referendum. Check it out online at or call 888-378-7395 to get print copies. Either way, make sure you are prepared to cast a knowledgeable and responsible vote on Tuesday, April 7.

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

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