Longest Serving State Supreme Court Justice
By Mary Branham
Shirley Abrahamson didn’t plan on being a judge or a justice. But when her name surfaced with an opening on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1976, she was intrigued by the job.
“When I realized it was a possibility, I thought this would be a really wonderful opportunity to serve the people of my adopted state,” said Abrahamson, a native of New York City who earned her law degree at Indiana University School of Law, before moving to Wisconsin in the early 1960s.
Abrahamson is the longest-serving state Supreme Court justice in the U.S., and has served as chief justice since 1996. It’s a far cry from her intended career path—to continue to practice law and teach at the University of Wisconsin Law School—but she’s happy to have encountered that fork in the road.
“It gave me an opportunity to think about the law in a very practical sense to settle disputes of people who came to court,” she said, “and at the same time to think about the law more broadly because this is the court of last resort.”
When she became chief justice, Abrahamson began dealing with the administrative side of the court and recognizes the biggest challenge: “Providing people with a fair, accessible, effective court system,” she said.
And because the court system is designed for lawyers, ensuring equal justice for all people, regardless of economic status or representation, remains a challenge, she said.
“The entire state system at the moment is in financial difficulty and so we have to be sure that there’s enough funding for the state court judicial system to function well,” said Abrahamson.
That will always be a challenge, she said, because of everything the courts deal with. Abrahamson said the courts see many people who do not speak English, so they need translators. She said there are many folks who come before the courts repeatedly, and the courts must look at underlying issues to break that cycle. That’s why some state courts across the country are experimenting with specialty courts, like those targeted to drug offenses, domestic violence and mental health issues among others.
Abrahamson came to the bench when few women were serving as justices; in fact, she was the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She didn’t have many female role models in the courts in the early days, but she and her husband, Seymour, made it work. That didn’t change when their son, Daniel, was born.
“I know lots of women who do what I did and worked on through,” she said. “And I’ve known women who took time off and raised two, three, four children and then came back. You have to do what’s best for your personality and what’s best for your family.”
Abrahamson is proud that more women are becoming judges, although the number of women judges is still a distinct minority. She attributes the rise in female justices and judges to the increases in enrollment of women in the nation’s law schools—most states require judges to be lawyers, she said.
It typically takes 20 years or so to reach the bench, so the rise in women lawyers in the mid-2000s was not unexpected, she said. Besides, being a justice is a great job for a woman—especially pregnant women, Abrahamson said, then explained with a chuckle: “You sit a lot and the robe masks all issues. It’s very cheap on maternity clothes.”
Abrahamson believes her sense of humor helps her deal with the challenges that come with serving on a state’s Supreme Court.
“This is serious business and I take my job seriously,” she said, “but I don’t think you necessarily have to take me seriously all the time.”
While that has helped Abrahamson cope with the challenges she has faced, her best advice to pass along to other judges is to understand there is a large learning curve. She also offers these insights:
Decision-making: “In writing opinions and deciding cases, a judge has to keep in the forefront that a judge is a fair, neutral, impartial, nonpartisan decision-maker.”
Influence: “The judge is not swayed by a personal ideology or view and has no agenda.”
Independence: “The judiciary works without interference by the executive or legislative branches and free from public opinion.”
Communication: “The judiciary as a branch is the least understood branch of government and each judge should, in my opinion, go out and talk to the people, explaining what judges do and listen. Outreach to the public is very important because we depend on the trust and confidence of the people and their trust and confidence that we are truly independent.”
Administration of justice: “Every judge should look at the procedures and be innovative and creative.”
“It’s a tall order for every judge,” Abrahamson said, “but each judge can