Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson dies

Shirley Abrahamson, the longest-serving Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in state history and the first woman to serve on the high court, has died. She was 87.

Abrahamson, who also served as chief justice for a record 19 years, died Saturday after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her son Dan Abrahamson told the Journal Sentinel newspaper in Milwaukee.

Court spokesman Tom Sheehan did not immediately return messages left by The Associated Press, and an automatic email reply said he would be until Dec. 28. A number for Dan Abrahamson could not be found.

Long recognized as a top legal scholar nationally and a leader among state judges, Abrahamson wrote 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. She retired in 2019.

Shirley Abrahamson

In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton considered putting her on the U.S. Supreme Court, and she was later profiled in the book, "Great American Judges: An Encyclopedia."

She told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2006 that she enjoyed being on the court.

"It has a mix of sitting, reading and writing and thinking, which I enjoy doing. And it’s quiet. On the other hand, all of the problems I work on are real problems of real people, and it matters to them, and it matters to the state of Wisconsin. So that gives an edge to it, and a stress," she said.

The New York City native, with the accent to prove it, graduated first in her class from Indiana University Law School in 1956, three years after her marriage to Seymour Abrahamson. The couple moved to Madison and her husband, a world-renowned geneticist, joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty in 1961. He died in 2016.

She earned a law degree from UW-Madison in 1962. Abrahamson worked as a professor and joined a Madison law firm, hired by the father of future Gov. Jim Doyle, in 1962.

Justice Shirley Abrahamson

She led the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1967 to 1974 and helped rewrite the city’s equal opportunities law in 1963.

Appointed to the state's high court by then-Gov. Patrick Lucey in 1976, Abrahamson won reelection 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.

Abrahamson was in the majority when the court in 2005 allowed a boy to sue over lead paint injuries even though he could not prove which company made the product that sickened him — undoing decades of precedent and opening paint companies to lawsuits seeking damages.

But Abrahamson found herself in the minority on several high-profile cases later in her career, including in 2011, when the court upheld the law championed by Republican then-Gov. Scott Walker effectively ending public employee union rights, and again in 2015, when the court ended a politically charged investigation into Walker and conservative groups.

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Abrahamson’s health began to fail in 2018. She frequently missed court hearings, participating by phone or not at all. That May, she announced she wouldn’t run again in 2019, and in August, she revealed she has cancer.

Doyle, a former Wisconsin attorney general and two-term governor, called Abrahamson a pioneer and said he sought her advice when he first ran for Dane County district attorney in the 1970s.

Doyle in 2018 called her "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 had 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.

Justice Shirley Abrahamson

"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 wasn’t without her enemies, both on the court and among Republican lawmakers who pushed a constitutional amendment in 2015 that led to her ouster as chief justice. The voter-approved amendment enabled members of the court to choose the chief justice — who oversees the state court system — instead of requiring the title go to the most senior justice.

Abrahamson, who became chief in 1996, was quickly voted out by conservative justices who held a majority on the court when the new law took effect in 2015.

Although she often clashed with more conservative members of the court, and drew support from liberals and Democrats, Abrahamson steadfastly maintained that she was an independent voice.

"When I joined the court, I was given a voice — a voice that I have not hesitated to use," Abrahamson said in a May 2018 statement announcing her decision not to seek re-election. "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."

Reaction to passing of the former justice

Gov. Tony Evers

"Kathy and I were devastated this morning to learn of Chief Justice Abrahamson’s passing. Chief Justice Abrahamson was a first—the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the first woman to serve as chief justice. 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.

Serving more than 40 years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and writing more than 1,300 opinions, few others have given so much of themselves to the cause of public service in Wisconsin. Chief Justice Abrahamson was a meticulous jurist and a profound writer who believed in an independent judiciary. But she was also a champion for a more fair, more equitable state and country, and to that end, worked to hold our laws to account.

She has had a larger-than-life impact on the legal profession in Wisconsin and our state’s and country’s jurisprudence. She was a pillar of our state and the court for generations. We have missed her greatly on the court, and we will miss her greatly in this life. We are thinking of Chief Justice Abrahamson’s family and friends, and we join the people of Wisconsin in mourning the loss of one of our state’s most extraordinary public servants and honoring her legacy."

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin)

"Shirley Abrahamson broke barriers and for her serving on the Supreme Court meant serving the people of Wisconsin as an independent, fair and impartial justice because after all, the court and our court system belongs to the people, not powerful special interests. That is why she spent a lot of her time traveling the state, meeting with people - whether it was meeting with local judges, riding along with local law enforcement, or meeting with advocates for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence – she always understood that you can’t serve the people if you don’t walk in their shoes. That is why the people of Wisconsin elected her to the Supreme Court four times and she served 43 years on the court - serving the people. All of us know the stories of that lonely office light on at the State Capital, as the Chief did her job working late into the night reading briefs and writing opinions. She was a true public servant who lived up to Wisconsin’s work ethic with all her hard work doing so much for our state. Wisconsin honors the life of Shirley Abrahamson, whose legacy will continue to inspire so many."

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul

"I was saddened to learn today of the passing of a truly remarkable person and towering figure in American law, former Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

"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.

"Through those hundreds and hundreds of opinions, Chief Justice Abrahamson shaped our understanding of the law for the better. Those opinions will have an impact for decades to come, as courts look to them for guidance and wisdom in resolving legal issues that have yet to arise.

"Chief Justice Abrahamson’s groundbreaking career helped open doors and has been a source of inspiration for countless people. And she showed that the law, and the jurists who interpret it, can be accessible.

"Our state government, our legal system, and Wisconsinites have all benefited greatly from Chief Justice Abrahamson’s more than four decades of distinguished service on the Wisconsin Supreme Court."

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley

"The loss of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson is devastating. Today, I join the people of Wisconsin in mourning her passing. I am thinking of the Justice’s family and friends at this difficult time.

"Chief Justice Abrahamson was a remarkable public servant and a jurist of historic stature whose 40-year career on the court is hallmarked by her efforts to make Wisconsin a fair and more just place to live.

"She was the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the first to serve as chief justice, inspiring the generations who came after her to follow in her footsteps in moving our state forward. As the longest serving Supreme Court Justice in state history, Chief Justice Abrahamson’s impact on the legal profession in Wisconsin cannot be overstated. Her influence was enormous and lives on through the hundreds of opinions written by her over her incredible career.

"She handled the challenges thrown at her throughout her life and career with civility and dignity. At the same time, she was a fighter, battling to the end, through her illness, with a burning passion to continue defending our democracy and its ideals.  We will remember her in this way and honor her by picking up the torch to continue the work she started."

"Wisconsin will miss her dearly. "

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester)

"Shirley Abrahamson was an accomplished jurist and a groundbreaker in Wisconsin’s legal community. As the first woman on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the longest serving Justice in the court’s history, she will be remembered for her gifted legal mind and commitment to Wisconsin.

"I offer my prayers and condolences to her family during this difficult time."

Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh)

"Wisconsin mourns the passing of Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Throughout her career Justice Abrahamson broke down barrier after barrier, leaving behind a legacy of progress. For all of her brilliance as a jurist, I was always struck by her accessibility as a person, and her advocacy on the importance of our judicial system.

"During her time as Chief Justice, our state was looked to as an example of good government and transparency. We can look to Justice Abrahamson’s example when working to restore the principles and dignity of the judiciary. Her legacy will not be forgotten."

Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas

"I am deeply saddened by the passing of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Justice Abrahamson was a leader and trailblazer. As the child of immigrants, she grew up believing in the power of pursuing any dream she set her mind to and going out and achieving it. Justice Abrahamson finished first in her graduating law school class, at a school in which she was often the only woman. She was the first woman hired at the law firm she joined out of law school. And years later, she would be tapped by Governor Patrick Lucey as the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. Justice Abrahamson challenged gender equity barriers early in her career, first as a young lawyer helping to break a male-only covenant at a private club and later from the bench where she lit a pathway for young men and women to pursue truth, justice and equality for all. Justice Abrahamson was a towering intellect and prolific writer who earned the admiration and respect of her fellow justices both at the Federal and state levels, including the late United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said, ‘Justice Abrahamson ranks with the very best, the brightest and most caring, the least self-regarding. She never forgets that law exists to serve all the people composing society, not just those in privileged positions.’ Justice Abrahamson spoke on many occasions to criminal justice and law enforcement officials in Milwaukee where her wit and good sense of humor were always on full display. Justice Abrahamson leaves a legacy of determination, hard work and integrity that will surely be missed. I send my deepest condolences to her family, friends and loved ones and all who knew and respected this genteel lady of the bench."  

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