MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Shirley Abrahamson, the longest-serving Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in state history and the first woman to serve on the high court, said Wednesday she will not seek re-election next year, setting up a wide open race to replace her.
Abrahamson, 84, issued a statement calling her decision “difficult,” but saying the time was right to step down.
“For a variety of reasons, I have decided not to seek re-election,” Abrahamson said. “It is the right decision for me. More importantly, it is the right decision for the state.”
Abrahamson, part of a two-justice liberal minority on the seven-member court, said she would encourage qualified candidates to run to succeed her. The election is in April 2019.
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Abrahamson has been dealing with an undisclosed illness in recent weeks, causing her to miss court and participate in cases by telephone. Her statement did not address her health. But Abrahamson said she intends to remain in office through the end of her term, which is July 31, 2019.
Conservatives currently control the court 5-2, but that will drop to 4-3 in August when the newly elected Rebecca Dallet is sworn in. With Abrahamson’s retirement, conservatives have a chance to increase their majority back to 5-2.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s former chief legal counsel, Wisconsin Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn, said Wednesday he was strongly interested in running and hoped to make a decision soon. Lisa Neubauer, chief judge of the state appeals court who was appointed in 2007 by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, issued a statement saying she also was considering a run and wanted to decide quickly.
Many others are expected to take a more serious look at the race now that Abrahamson is out.
Doyle, the former governor whose father hired Abrahamson in 1962 to work at his law firm, called Abrahamson “one of the great leaders in Wisconsin government.” He credited her with working to demystify the court by holding hearings around the state and meeting with school groups and others to discuss its work.
In addition to breaking barriers for women, Doyle said Abrahamson has been a champion of civil rights and civil liberties, a protector of basic constitutional rights, and a strong advocate for open government and public records.
“She brought the court to the people of Wisconsin by the force of her own personality, by the decisions she rendered and is somebody who really looked to protect the people of Wisconsin and their basic constitutional rights,” Doyle said.
Abrahamson served a record 19 years as chief justice, from 1996 to 2015. But a law that took effect in 2015 then gave justices the power to decide who would be chief justice, rather than it going automatically to the most senior member.
Conservatives voted to replace Abrahamson with Justice Patience Roggensack. Abrahamson sued in federal court but lost.
Roggensack declined immediate comment on Abrahamson’s decision not to seek re-election.
A New York City native, Abrahamson has long been recognized as a top legal scholar nationally and a leader among state judges. She has written more than 450 majority opinions and participated in more than 3,500 written decisions during her more than four decades on Wisconsin’s highest court.
Appointed to the high court by then-Gov. Patrick Lucey, a Democrat, in 1976, Abrahamson won re-election four times to 10-year terms starting in 1979. She broke the record for longest-serving in justice in 2013, her 36th year on the court.
As the court became more conservative, Abrahamson and the newly elected justices clashed more publicly. Through it all, Abrahamson has maintained that she’s an independent voice.
“When I joined the court, I was given a voice — a voice that I have not hesitated to use,” she said Wednesday. “The best expression of appreciation I can give the people who have elected and repeatedly re-elected 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.”
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