The Real Legacy WI’s First Woman Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson Leaves Behind

The Real Legacy WI’s First Woman Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson Leaves Behind


By christinalieffring

December 21, 2020

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice was a prolific, meticulous legal scholar, leaving an indelible mark on Wisconsin’s courts.

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the first woman to serve as a justice and then chief justice of the state’s highest court, died at the age of 87 on Saturday.

Abrahamson was the longest-serving member of the court and was the first in many respects: first in her graduating class at Indiana University Law School; the first woman public defender; and finally the first woman to be appointed to the state’s highest court and eventually become chief justice, a position she held for 19 years. She retired on May 30, 2018, after serving on the court for 43 years.

“Yet, her legacy is defined not just by being a first, but her life’s work of ensuring she would not be the last, paving and lighting the way for the many women and others who would come after her,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a press statement. “[F]ew others have given so much of themselves to the cause of public service in Wisconsin.”

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who served with Abrahamson from 1993 to 1998, told Wisconsin Public Radio Abrahamson was a great friend, had a wonderful sense of humor, and scrutinized every word in her written opinions.

“I always said she’s the hardest working, smartest person I know and I’ve ever met,” said Geske. “She worked, like, 20 hours a day. If you wanted to find her at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night, you’d call the chambers.”

According to the Associated Press, Abrahamson wrote more than 450 majority opinions and participated in more than 3,500 written decisions, leaving an indelible mark on the state’s legal system.

The Real Legacy WI's First Woman Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson Leaves Behind
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson addresses a crowd in the Capitol Rotunda during a celebration in honor of her retirement from the Wisconsin Supreme Court on June 18, 2019. Abrahamson retired after 43 years as a Supreme Court justice. (Photo © Andy Manis)

“You didn’t have to know Chief Justice Abrahamson to know that she was brilliant, worked famously long hours in service to the people of Wisconsin, and was dedicated to fairness and justice. You just had to read her opinions,” Attorney General Josh Kaul wrote in a statement. “Through those hundreds and hundreds of opinions, Chief Justice Abrahamson shaped our understanding of the law for the better.”

Richard Ginkowski, President of the Wisconsin Municipal Judges Association and a municipal judge in Pleasant Prairie, said that while conservatives may not have always agreed with her opinions, they had to respect the work she put into them. 

“Few people will ever have the fidelity and enthusiasm that Chief Justice Abrahamson demonstrated toward the Wisconsin Constitution that she felt was forgotten all too often,” Ginkowski wrote. “Her legal scholarship was more than ‘a cut above’ and her opinions did not shy away from controversy. Even if you disagreed with her—which happened on more than one occasion—you had to admit that she did her homework and articulated her opinions with exhaustively researched and articulated analysis.” 

In her decision to retire and subsequent celebrations of her legacy, Abrahamson emphasized the importance of an independent judiciary. And while he was often championed by the state’s liberals and drew the ire of conservatives, Abrahamson maintained that she was independent.

“When I joined the court, I was given a voice—a voice that I have not hesitated to use,” Abrahamson said in May 2018. “The best expression of appreciation I can give the people who have elected and repeatedly reelected me is to continue to speak with the clarity, forthrightness and compassion that come from a life I have tried to devote to service and to justice for all.”

The Real Legacy WI's First Woman Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson Leaves Behind
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson is greeted June 18, 2019, by Federal Appeals Court Judge Diane Sykes, right, after Sykes spoke about Abrahamson’s contributions to the legal community. Sykes served on the state’s highest court with Abrahamson. Abrahamson’s son, Daniel Abrahamson, third from left. (Photo © Andy Manis)


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