Former Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, state's longest serving justice, dies at 87

Madison, Wisconsin - December 20, 2020

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson died Dec. 19, 2020, just two days after her 87th birthday, an Abrahamson family member confirmed on Dec. 20.

Abrahamson will be remembered for her decades of accomplishments in the law, the legal profession and 43 years of service on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, said Chief Justice Patience Drake Roggensack.

"During her four decades on the Court, Justice Abrahamson made numerous contributions, both in terms of the law and the administration of the court system. She was well-read, well-traveled, and she brought a lifetime of interesting experiences with her as she served on the bench. The court system and the people of Wisconsin continue to benefit from her work and will do so for years to come," Chief Justice Roggensack said.

Friends and former colleagues, including governors, justices, and others in the legal profession, fondly recalled Abrahamson and her many accomplishments.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who served 24 years on the Court with Abrahamson, said: "With her immense intellect, legendary work ethic, wit and wisdom, Shirley has left an indelible mark on the law in this state and nation. I consider it my good fortune to have worked with Shirley Abrahamson for 24 years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and to call her not only a colleague, but also a dear friend."

Abrahamson was appointed to the Supreme Court by then-Gov. Patrick J. Lucey in 1976. She won election in 1979 and re-election three times. She completed her fourth 10-year term when she retired July 31, 2019 after not seeking re-election. Abrahamson served as chief justice from 1996 to 2015 and was the first woman justice and first woman chief justice of the Court.

Abrahamson is estimated to have written 530 majority opinions, 490 dissenting opinions, 325 concurring opinions, according to statistics compiled by Marquette University History professor Alan Ball and published in Wisconsin Lawyer.

Before being appointed, Abrahamson was in private practice in Madison for 14 years and was a professor at the UW Law School. Born and raised in New York City, Justice Abrahamson 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 UW Law School.

At a ceremony honoring Abrahamson in 2019, the late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared via video recording, praising Abrahamson's deep regard for the law and "all the people" it serves.

"Among jurists I have encountered in the United States and abroad, Shirley Abrahamson is the very best, the most courageous and sage." Ginsberg said in the video.

Abrahamson, the longest serving justice in Wisconsin history, has contributed enormously to the advancement of opportunity for women in the legal profession, Ginsburg said.

"As a lawyer, law teacher and judge, she has inspired legions to follow in her way to strive constantly to make the legal system genuinely equal and accessible to all who dwell in our fair land," Ginsburg said.

Abrahamson was the recipient of 16 honorary doctor of laws degrees and the Distinguished Alumni Award of both the UW-Madison and Indiana University-Bloomington. She was a fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an elected member of the American Philosophical Society.

In 2004, Abrahamson received the American Judicature Society’s Dwight D. Opperman Award for Judicial Excellence. In 2009, the National Center for State Courts awarded her the Harry L. Carrico Award for Judicial Innovation, for serving as a national leader in safeguarding judicial independence, improving inter-branch relations, and expanding outreach to the public.

In 2010 the American Bar Association awarded her the John Marshall Award in recognition of her dedication to improving the administration of justice.

Abrahamson was a past-president of the National Conference of Chief Justices and past-chair of the board of directors of the National Center for State Courts. She was an emeritus member of the Council of the American Law Institute and had served on the New York University School of Law Institute of Judicial Administration.

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