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Bill could change how Supreme Court chooses chief justice

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Kevin Hoffman
July 9, 2011
— Wisconsin’s Supreme Court would be given the power to elect its chief justice under a constitutional amendment that could be introduced to the state Legislature as early as next week.

The bill authored by Rep. Tyler August, R-Walworth, would end a longstanding rule that gives the court’s highest seat to the person with the most seniority. Instead, the seven justices would gather to choose their own chief following any Supreme Court election.


That could allow the court to seat a new chief justice every one or two years.


“The justices know better than anyone if the Supreme Court is being run the way it ought to be,” said August, who authored the bill with Sen. Rich Zipperer, R-Brookfield. “If it feels it is or isn’t, they can make the change they feel is necessary.”


August began circulating the bill to legislators Thursday. He hasn’t spoken to any members of the Supreme Court about the proposal, and he didn’t know if they would eventually weigh in with their thoughts.


The Gazette was unable to reach justices for comment.


The National Center for State Courts shows that 22 states use a peer election to choose a chief justice. Eight make the selection based on seniority, according to the center.


Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who has been on the court since 1976, has held that position for 16 years.


August believes the high court should select its leader the same way Republicans and Democrats do in the state Legislature.


“I think giving the seven justices the flexibility to determine for themselves who’s going to lead their branch of government would make sense,” he said.


“The leader of Wisconsin’s highest court should not simply be who has been there the longest. The chief justice should be a consensus builder who has the respect of their fellow justices.”


The state Supreme Court has drawn a lot of attention this year.


Justice David Prosser defeated JoAnne Kloppenburg in a closely watched election that ended with a recount. That came before the court reinstated Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial plan to end most collective bargaining rights for thousands of state workers.


The state continues to investigate an alleged physical altercation between Prosser and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. Bradley claims Prosser put her in a chokehold during an argument in her office.



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