by Howard Bashman
20 Questions for Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin:
"How Appealing" is very pleased that Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson
of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin
has agreed to participate in this web log's monthly feature, "20 Questions for the Appellate Judge."
Chief Justice Abrahamson was born in New York City on December 17, 1933. She received her bachelor's degree from NYU in 1953, her law degree from Indiana University Law School in 1956, and a doctorate of law in American legal history in 1962 from the University of Wisconsin Law School. She is the recipient of fourteen honorary Doctor of Laws degrees and the Distinguished Alumni Award of the University of Wisconsin -- Madison. She is an elected fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.
Following law school, Abrahamson worked at Columbia University Law School and then in Madison, Wisconsin in the private practice of law for fourteen years and was a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
In 1976, Abrahamson was appointed to the Supreme Court by Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey and became the first woman to serve on that court. Wisconsin voters elected her to a ten-year term on the court in 1979. She won reelection in 1989 and became the court's first female Chief Justice in 1996. She again won reelection in 1999 and, from 2003 until recently, presided over a court on which females constituted a majority.
Chief Justice Abrahamson currently serves as President of the National Conference of Chief Justices, as chair of the board of directors of the National Center for State Courts, and as a member of the board of directors of the New York University School of Law Institute of Judicial Administration and the Council of the American Law Institute. She was chair of the National Institute of Justice, National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence and has also served on the State Bar of Wisconsin's Commission on the Delivery of Legal Services and American Bar Association's Coalition for Justice.
Chief Justice Abrahamson's chambers are located in Madison, which is also where the Supreme Court of Wisconsin sits in the State Capitol.
Questions appear below in italics, and Chief Justice Abrahamson's responses follow in plain text.
1. As the first female to serve on the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, and as that State's first female Chief Justice, you are a historic figure. It has been recently reported that Wisconsin's Governor has decided to appoint the first African-American to the court. In your view, do the press and public focus too much on the breaking of these gender and racial barriers, or is the attention merited and useful? Do you think that a jurist's gender or race makes a difference in how cases or decided or in how the justice system is perceived? And does it surprise you, for example, when the press reports that your court divided along gender lines in reaching a decision, as happened in 2001 in an article headlined "High court limits dad's procreation; Justices split on gender lines in child support case"?
"Firsts" that break records or break barriers are events to celebrate. It's newsworthy that I was the first female justice in the 128-year history of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, especially in light of the fact that the Court declared in 1875 that women lawyers could not even practice before the Court. Justice Louis B. Butler, just appointed to the court by Governor James Doyle, is the court's first person of color. There is bound to be public interest in and media attention to these firsts.
The composition of the judiciary and court staff affects the public's perception of the institution. People are more comfortable with and are more trusting of an institution that reflects the rich diversity of our population. Ultimately, however, it is the ability of the judges and the quality of their judgments that are most important. Fortunately, society is recognizing that good lawyers, good judges, and good people need not all look alike.
As far as I know, the article you cite noting the gender split in State v. Oakley
, 2001 WI 103, 248 Wis. 2d 654, 635 N.W.2d 760, was the first article of its kind with respect to our court. It was surprising that the gender split in that case was emphasized. Divisions of the court on gender lines are not usual but have occurred occasionally probably before and after Oakley
2. In April 1999, you won reelection to the court by a decisive margin in a contest that an editorial published in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel characterized as "the Supreme Court campaign from hell; the political equivalent of death by 1,000 cuts; a black hole of intrigue and stealth, sucking whatever good is left in politics into the mire of negative campaigning." Four of your colleagues on the court on which you served as Chief Justice publicly endorsed your opponent, and an article published after the election was headlined "High-court race brings reform cries." To the surprise of some, two years later you spoke publicly about your continued support for judicial elections, and that speech was published as a law review article. Let's say, hypothetically speaking, that a 51st State is created and you are put in charge of deciding the method for selecting that State's appellate judges. What method would you select, and why? In your view, is it appropriate for sitting justices to announce a position on whether their colleagues should be elected or defeated at the polls, have you announced your views in that regard with respect to your colleagues' candidacies, and why or why not? And finally, was it necessary for the Court to use a mediator to overcome the "deep-seated disputes" that arose during your most recent campaign for reelection?
The method for selecting federal judges was debated at the founding of our country. The method for selecting Wisconsin state judges was vigorously debated in the Wisconsin constitutional conventions. Each state has adopted its own method for selecting judges, and the search continues for the "best" method. Wisconsin has always elected its judges. It probably always will because of the state's deep populist and progressive traditions. We're comfortable with this system, even though, like all others, it has flaws.
Scholars, lawyers and bar associations have been nearly unanimous in condemning judicial elections; they support the federal system of appointment and "life tenure." But the federal system isn't without its own warts. Judge Reinhardt graphically described some of the worst aspects of federal appointments in his 20 Questions interview on How Appealing
There is no perfect system for selecting judges. No system guarantees the best qualified judges, even if we were to agree on what "best qualified" means. Each selection method has its strengths and weaknesses, and states have evaluated the pluses and minuses of each selection system differently. Nevertheless, over 80% of state trial and appellate judges in this country stand for election of some type.
The method for selecting judges in a particular state--and in your hypothetical new 51st state--necessarily reflects the legal and political culture of the state, as well as its geographical size, population, and media markets. If the 51st state were similar to Wisconsin, I would favor non-partisan judicial elections with "long terms" for the judges. I have reread my NYU article, and I continue (perhaps not surprisingly) to be persuaded by my reasoning. I favor elections because I favor transparent government. Too much of what goes on in the appointment and confirmation process is kept behind closed doors; the public does not have an opportunity for meaningful participation in the process. Ideally, the elective system can also be an educational experience for both the judges and the electorate.
I do not subscribe to the view that elected judges are more (or less) likely than appointed judges to tailor a decision to the wishes of the legislature, the executive, or popular opinion. Experience demonstrates that appointed judges, even those with life tenure, are not free from outside pressures, whether in the selection process or thereafter. Indeed in recent years some life-tenured federal judges have asserted that their independence is being threatened.
No constitutional or statutory safeguards can guarantee judicial independence. The qualities most needed in judges are courage and personal integrity, both of which are indispensable to independence. The stakes are higher for elected judges who do not have life tenure, but the best judges, whatever the selection or retention system, are those who resist threats to judicial independence.
Nevertheless, I recognize problems inherent in the elective system. Low voter turnout and inadequate information regarding judicial qualifications diminish the democratic significance of elections. Issues of campaign speech and campaign financing loom large. See Republican Party of Minnesota v. White
. But rather than scuttle elections, we should attempt to minimize the problems and should use elections as vehicles for voter education about the judicial system--especially the core value of decisional independence.
Although Wisconsin justices have and may support candidates for the court, I have never done so. My task is to work with the justices appointed by the governor and elected by the people.
"Deep-seated disputes," if any, dissipated with their exposure to the "sunlight" of a campaign, an affirmative vote for the sitting chief justice of about two-thirds of the electorate, and a commitment by all members of the court to work for the public good. The "chemistry" on the Wisconsin Supreme Court today is good, the collegiality pervasive, and we're committed to keeping it that way.
3. The composition of your court has changed quite a bit from what it was in 1999, and only two of the Justices who publicly supported your defeat at the polls continue to serve on the court. Are you pleased with how the court is functioning today as a collegial body, is the court current with its workload, and what additional duties and responsibilities, if any, does the Chief Justice of your court have in comparison with the duties and responsibilities of the other Justices?
The court is current with its workload and is functioning well, although we are always open to changing our internal procedures to improve the system. Each year the court decides about 1000 petitions for review, resulting in about 90 cases on full appellate review. Additionally, we hear attorney and judge discipline cases and petitions for rule making on such matters as the code of judicial conduct, the code of judicial responsibility, and matters of practice, pleading and procedure.
As chief justice, I preside over oral arguments and the court's adjudicative and administrative conferences. I work closely with the director of state courts and court staff, chief trial judges and district court administrators, and chair or serve on numerous court committees. Under Article VII, � 4 of our state constitution, "the chief justice shall be the administrative head of the judicial system and shall exercise this administrative authority pursuant to procedures adopted by the supreme court."
Although these administrative duties take a tremendous amount of time, they are rewarding. I have made a prolonged effort during my tenure on the court to promote court programs that improve the administration of justice. These include increasing volunteers in the courts, providing assistance to pro se litigants, certifying court interpreters, creating unified family courts, improving the protection of children, developing new opportunities for judicial education within the state, nationally and abroad, establishing legislative-judicial seminars, improving relations among state, federal and tribal courts, and increasing public outreach.
The court's jurisdiction is statewide. All the justices travel across the state and speak to many audiences. The court has undertaken a significant program of educating students and teachers about the courts, including our court with class sessions and our teacher institutes. We sponsor court "ride-a-longs" for state and local legislators and media and sentencing exercises for media. These are just a few of our outreach programs. You can find them described on our website: www.wicourts.gov
. Many state courts are engaged in public outreach, and the federal courts are starting their own programs--all to the good of the courts and the people.
4. The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2002 announced its ruling in
Republican Party of Minnesota v.
White, No. 01-521. By a 5-4 margin, the Court struck down as unconstitutional a judicial campaign restriction intended to prevent candidates for elected judicial offices from announcing views on disputed legal or political issues. Do you view the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling as a positive development, a negative development, or somewhere in between?
It is still too early to evaluate the impact of White
on either elected state judges or appointed federal and state judges. The concern is that White
is a threat to an impartial judiciary and will weaken public trust and confidence in the judiciary. Pending and future cases will clarify the meaning and scope of White
5. One of your former colleagues recently left your court to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. While she achieved confirmation without much difficulty, that has not been the case in recent years for all nominees to federal appellate court vacancies. As someone who can watch these developments unfold at something of a comfortable distance, what are your views on the judicial confirmation battles underway in the U.S. Senate, the use of filibusters, and the use of recess appointments to place filibustered nominees onto the federal appellate courts?
It's good on a personal level to be "at something of a comfortable distance" from the process, and my interest is academic, not personal. Although much is written about the "horrors" of the elective system, not enough scholarship and attention is devoted to the "horrors" of the federal appointive system and how the President and the Senate can improve the appointive system.
6. What are your most favorite and least favorite aspects of being an appellate judge?
My favorite aspects of being an appellate judge on the highest state court are that I can work on important cutting edge legal issues and resolve them fairly and justly not only for the parties involved but also for the law of the state, that I discuss the judicial system with the public and listen to the people's concerns, and that I have opportunities to improve the administration of justice. My least favorite aspect of the job is my concern about whether we have given enough time to each case.
7. Identify the one federal or state court judge, living or dead, whom you admire the most and explain why.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Chief Justice Rehnquist is widely viewed as being exceedingly fair as a chief justice in his relations with each justice and in presiding over the court's conferences and the federal system. Because I understand the difficulties of administering a court system and the variant interests that are necessarily involved, I have a tremendous respect for anyone that can earn such wide praise. The Chief Justice also has made the time to be an author and contribute to public understanding of the judiciary. Let's also not forget he is a son of Wisconsin!
8. How did you come to Governor Lucey's attention as a potential Supreme Court nominee, when did you first realize that you might be interested in being an appellate judge, what concerns if any did you have about becoming the first female to serve on the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, and did any of those concerns prove to have merit?
My first encounter with Patrick Lucey personally was around 1963�64, before he was governor. I was one of the drafters of Madison's open-housing ordinance making it unlawful to discriminate in the sale or rental of certain real estate on the basis of race. Almost every large realty company in Madison vehemently opposed the ordinance. Pat Lucey of Lucey Realty Co. was the lone realtor of a large company to appear at the city council meeting and publicly support the ordinance. (The proposed ordinance was very controversial; it passed on a tie vote of the council with the mayor casting the deciding vote).
I then met Pat Lucey again in the late 1960s when Madison was in turmoil over the Vietnam War. I was working with community leaders attempting to keep peace in the community and went to Pat's home late one night to urge him to offer the student community use one of his large vacant neighborhood lots as a garden. He agreed.
That was largely the extent of my interaction on a personal level with Pat Lucey until he appointed me in 1976. We did have a number of mutual friends.
I never considered becoming a judge until I saw my name in the newspaper in 1974 as a possible appointee to the Supreme Court. I did not get that appointment. I got the next one.
Because I do not think my gender negatively affects my ability to do any job I undertake, being a woman did not concern me when I became a judge.
9. The Journal Sentinel in early August 2004 published an article headlined "State's law students get free pass on bar exam; Despite detractors, age-old privilege likely to remain." According to the article, Wisconsin is today the only State to confer such a "diploma privilege" on its in-state educated law students, having outlasted the States of Mississippi, Montana, and West Virginia, all of which abandoned similar policies in the 1980s. Why does Wisconsin adhere to this policy, why should graduates of in-state accredited law schools be assured of the ability to practice law in Wisconsin while graduates of other fine out-of-state law schools are not, and what purpose does the bar exam serve in any event?
The diploma privilege makes good sense for Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Supreme Court (in charge of attorney admissions) is very familiar with the two excellent A.B.A. accredited schools in Wisconsin: the University of Wisconsin Law School and Marquette University Law School. Both schools have high standards for admission and graduation. To qualify for the diploma privilege, students must take certain courses (determined by our court as being fundamental) and achieve a certain average score for those courses. In short, we have confidence in the quality of graduates from these two schools.
Those graduates that do move out of state after graduation typically do very well on other states' bar exams. If there were any indication that graduates from UW or Marquette were less prepared for the practice of law compared with graduates from other schools, we would be the first to look for another system. There are currently no plans to alter the diploma privilege.
For states with only a few accredited law schools, the diploma privilege is a terrific system. In fact, some states are currently considering adopting the diploma privilege. Wisconsin should not be viewed as the last to retain the diploma privilege; I like to think of Wisconsin as the leader on this issue, not the holdout.
Wisconsin does give a bar examination to students who graduate from out-of-state law schools. I have served on the bar examination commission and have taken two bar exams. I do, however, have reservations about the traditional bar examination. I am not sure what the examination measures. Most students from accredited law schools end up passing a bar examination on at least the second attempt. While many law firms reimburse students for costs associated with taking the bar, the bar examination forces students who are already financially burdened to incur additional expenses; the bar exam delays students' entrance into the workforce while they study for the bar or wait for results.
As is the case with many systems, it is easy to criticize. The question of what is a better replacement looms large but is not easy to answer. The National Conference of Bar Examiners (headquartered in Madison and headed by a Wisconsin lawyer) is experimenting with different types of examinations. Until there is evidence of a better system (except for the diploma privilege of course), states will continue to use the traditional bar exams.
10. Congratulations on having recently begun your tenure as President of the National Conference of Chief Justices. Please explain what that organization exists to accomplish and whether you have any particular goals that you hope to achieve during your year as the organization's leader.
Thank you. I am quite honored to sit as this year's president of the Conference of Chief Justices
. The organization was founded in 1949 as a means of getting the states' highest judicial officers together for discussions of issues affecting their respective judicial systems and learning from each other. Collectively we are able to exchange valuable information about current problems and possible resolutions, how various programs are working in different states and in what ways we might be able to improve the administration of justice in our own state. Each of us innovates and communicates.
The past, present and future presidents of the conference work together to achieve continuity of programs from one year to the next. I am therefore continuing the good work of my predecessors in streamlining the structure of the conference, improving our educational programs, increasing communication among the states, reviewing and commenting on the impact of proposed federal legislation on state courts, filing amicus briefs in appellate cases raising issues of concern to state courts, and moving forward with our activities in protecting children, promoting public trust and confidence, working with the federal judicial system, and tackling new and continuing issues in the administration of the criminal justice system.
11. When you joined the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, the state did not yet have an intermediate appellate court. How was your work on the Supreme Court, and the practice of law, different before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals came into existence? And please explain the direct review and bypass procedures that allow a case to come to your court without passing through the Court of Appeals, and how often and in what sort of cases are those procedures used?
The establishment of the court of appeals dramatically changed the work of the Supreme Court. Before the court of appeals, the Supreme Court decided several hundred cases a year and had a substantial backlog--perhaps two years' worth of cases. Now the Court focuses on the cases that raise significant legal issues of statewide importance and we are able to give those cases more time.
As you mention, we have two procedures, Direct Review and Petition to Bypass, in addition to a Petition for Review and Certification by the Court of Appeals. Both Direct Review and Bypass are rarely used.
Under Direct Review, this Court can reach down and give itself jurisdiction over a case, without any request from the parties or a court. As far as I can remember, the Court has never used this power.
In Bypass, a party to a circuit court case asks this court to hear the case before the court of appeals rules on it. Very few bypasses are requested, and in past years we have granted from zero and two bypasses.
12. What role should an appellate judge's personal and political ideology play in deciding cases, and when if ever is it appropriate for an appellate judge to decide how to rule based solely on his or her personal preference? Also, isn't it true that Justices serving on courts of last resort sometimes have little other than their own personal preference concerning the result to guide them in deciding cases?
An appellate judge's personal and political ideology or personal preferences should not play a role in deciding cases. In many cases I reach a decision that I would prefer not to reach. Nevertheless I feel compelled to reach that decision because of the facts and applicable law.
The justices of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin come from different political, ideological, social, geographical, and economic backgrounds. They bring their varied experiences in their personal lives and in their legal careers to the cases. The justices may have different jurisprudential views about the role of courts and about principles of statutory and constitutional interpretation. These experiences and different views of the law may very well play a role in decision-making. The key requirements of an appellate judge are to have an open mind and read (and check) all the materials submitted.
Decision-making involves judgment. If only one result was possible in every case, we would not need a court of seven persons, one judge would be sufficient. Indeed, we might not need any judges at all. A computer could spit out the decision.
13. You have taught at law schools, are regularly in the market for recent law school graduates seeking to be hired as law clerks, and review on a daily basis the work of people who graduated from one law school or another. In what ways should the Nation's system of legal education be reformed and/or improved?
Law schools keep changing their curriculum and practices. That's good. Law schools ought to be even more innovative and creative. Too many law schools follow other schools instead of making use of their own faculty and student talent and regional interests.
I like the approach taken at the school I know best, the University of Wisconsin Law School. I describe the school's approach as "eclectic." Students are exposed to traditional and non-traditional courses and methods of teaching and strong clinical programs. This cornucopia of offerings benefits not only the students, but also benefits Wisconsin's legal community, the general citizenry, other law schools, and other states.
14. How do you make use of your judicial law clerks, what qualities do you look for in deciding whom to hire as a law clerk, and are there any sorts of candidates whom you wish were applying but haven't been?
Wisconsin Supreme Court justices (including me) have only one full time, salaried law clerk apiece. We also have the opportunity to collaborate with law school students who, as part of their legal education, work in chambers. Selecting a law clerk for each one-year term is one of the most important decisions I make. I look for people who have strong research, writing and analytical skills and are willing to think and rethink positions and work long hours--all with a sense of humor. I value clerks who have had varied life and work experiences. I have been fortunate to get applicants from law schools all over the country, but would also welcome a more racially diverse pool of applicants.
15. What are the three most important suggestions you have for attorneys concerning how they can improve their written work product filed with the Supreme Court of Wisconsin?
Lawyers should let their briefs "rest" for a week or so and then reread and edit them. Lawyers should ask other lawyers and non-lawyers in their office to read and edit the briefs. Too often lawyers jump right into the legal nuances of the case without explaining, in clear terms, the legal context in which the case arises and they fail to persuade the Court why it should decide in their favor.
16. Similarly, what are the three most important pieces of advice you have for attorneys concerning how they can improve their performance at oral argument?
First, know the record, your brief, and the cases on which you rely. Second, moot the case with other attorneys in your firm or with law students or faculty (a group often overlooked as a valuable resource). In short, practice practice practice! During practice sessions you will probably be asked many of the same the questions the Court will ask. Third, decide the two or three major points you want to make with the court. Keep them firmly in mind and make them at least once but probably several times. These same suggestions are given over and over by appellate judges and they warrant repeating.
17. A couple of years ago, The Journal Sentinel reported on a day when you found yourself "perched in one of Milwaukee's most detested judicial assignments" filling in for a vacationing judge in small claims court. How did you enjoy your time on the bench at small claims court, and is that something that you might volunteer to do again?
Working as a judge in small claims court was one of the most difficult tasks I have undertaken, but I enjoyed it immensely. I had to hear and decide a case from the bench every 15-20 minutes, usually without the assistance of lawyers arguing the issues. But I got to meet people, hear their problems directly from them, and resolve disputes right from the bench, all while helping people. I'll do it again even though I know that it will be harder for me to sit a week in small claims court than to sit a week in the Supreme Court. The preparation for small claims court was horrendous. I read numerous statutes, pages of regulations I had never seen before, cases and the sparse case files. I was overwhelmed by the amount of law I needed to master and have readily available, just in case the issue arose. The volume of cases and the tumult of the courtroom was exhausting.
When I first offered to sit in small claims court I was not fully aware of the difficulty of the assignment. I am now wiser and have a much greater appreciation for the work done by judges at all levels of our state's judicial system.
In keeping with my belief that judges ought to experience the judicial system from different vantage points, I have sat as a juror in both civil and criminal cases and have initiated a program in which Wisconsin court of appeals judges can sit as trial judges and trial judges can sit as court of appeals judges.
18. Are the salaries now paid to state court judges in Wisconsin too low? What should those judges be paid or, perhaps less controversially, how would one determine what the proper salary should be?
Judges' compensation in recent years has not kept up with the increase in the cost of living, and serving as a judge is therefore often not attractive to practicing lawyers. Some first year law graduates are paid as much as, or more, than experienced judges. Judges should be compensated reasonably so that judgeships attract good lawyers and are open to people who are not independently wealthy. Judges' compensation should be in line with the compensation of other state officials, with judges in other states, and with government lawyers. Any compensation system necessarily must reflect the state's fiscal situation.
19. Your biography shows that you were born and raised, and attended undergraduate and law school, outside of Wisconsin. At what point in your life did you become a resident of Wisconsin, and why? Also, if there is anything else that you would like to say about the quite lovely State of Wisconsin, please feel free to do so now.
My husband and I moved to Wisconsin in 1956 for his post-graduate work at the University of Wisconsin. We left Wisconsin from 1957-60, returned to Madison in 1960, and have been here ever since--more than 40 years. My son, now an attorney in California, was born and raised in Wisconsin.
I am always happy to talk about the great state of Wisconsin. While Wisconsin is often associated with its excellent sports teams and its tourism, it is a wonderful state to live in with a world-class university, a well-educated citizenry, a great history and a strong progressive tradition. Its people have sound values and a strong work ethic, and there is a consistent tradition of good government serving the people.
20. What do you do for enjoyment and/or relaxation in your spare time?
Whatever spare time I have I use to the maximum. I enjoy traveling and have visited much of the United States and all seven continents. I recently returned from a trip to China and Mongolia, where I combined judicial work (lectures) and tourism. The theater, art galleries, museums, and of course, shopping, are also activities I enjoy. My newest, and what promises to be my most consuming, spare time passion is my nine-month old grandson. As my law clerk and others will attest, no one is safe from having to view photos of him and hear about his feats in manipulating finger food.