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The Third Branch

Chief celebrates milestone

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson became the longest-serving justice in the history of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in mid-April when she hit the 36 year-seven month-and-four-day mark, passing Justice Orsamus Cole and breaking a record that had stood since 1892.

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson (center) listens as Justice Ann Walsh Bradley offers a toast to honor her record-setting service on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The celebration followed a public reading of a new play entitled LAVINIA about the life of Wisconsin's first woman lawyer, Lavinia Goodell. Those who attended the reading were invited to stay afterward for cake and juice. Taking the part of Goodell – and joining Bradley in toasting the Chief – was celebrated actress Sarah Day (in photo, far right), daughter of the late Chief Justice Roland B. Day.

Since joining the Court, Abrahamson has written an estimated 499 majority opinions, 296 concurrences, 46 concur/dissents, and 405 dissents. Her opinions span 271 volumes of the Wisconsin Reports.

Abrahamson was sworn in on Sept. 6, 1976, and her first opinion was released on Oct. 5, 1976, less than a month later. The opinion dealt with a judgment for foreclosure. Her first dissent was issued just two weeks later, on Oct. 19, 1976.

Among the many media outlets noting the Chief's milestone was Wausau's City Pages, which recounted an exchange the Chief had during the Joint Finance Committee budget hearings with a legislator who asked for her thoughts on reinstating a mandatory retirement age for judges. The newspaper wrote: "Abrahamson's deft response that she hoped lawmakers would 'grandmother' her in if they decided to do that drew chuckles from insiders, who note even those who oppose her don't question [her] toughness, work ethic or intellect."

The Journal Sentinel ran a wide-ranging interview with the Chief about her tenure. She talked about how judges often don't know the consequences of their decisions, and recounted a difficult vote in a case that involved a farmer who did not want to sell his land to make way for a nuclear power plant. She voted with a unanimous court requiring the land to be sold and felt "just awful" about it, she recalled. Then one day she was telling the story to a community group to illustrate the 'judge's dilemma' – doing what the law requires even when it's heartbreaking – and an audience member familiar with the case shared with her the rest of the story: the nuclear power plant was never built, the price of the land dropped precipitously, and the farmer got his land back and made a nice profit.

"We never know the consequences -- really know them -- of our decisions," Abrahamson said.

The Chief also discussed the advent of treatment courts that bring together teams, led by the judge, to work on cases. Some of the courts focus on drug treatment, others target drunk driving and still others try to address the many diverse needs presented by combat veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Today there are at least 57 problem-solving court programs in 38 counties and more in the works.

Abrahamson has encouraged judges across the state to try new approaches to complex criminal justice issues. Under her leadership, Wisconsin has become a national laboratory for the growth of evidence-based practices that can improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars.

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