Justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court will remain the same following the April 7 election, but there likely will be a new chief justice for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley easily defeated Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley, sending her back to the court for a third 10-year term. But voters also approved a constitutional amendment that gives the seven justices the power to decide who will be chief justice, rather than having it go automatically to the most senior member as it has for the past 126 years.
Given that the court is controlled by conservatives, that likely means liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s 19-year tenure as head of the state’s highest court could be ending soon.
Abrahamson, 81, did not return messages seeking comment on the vote. She has served on the court longer than anyone in state history, joining in 1976, and is also the longest-serving chief justice.
Bradley, a close ally of Abrahamson’s, said the court has not discussed how it will move forward once the amendment becomes final. That is likely to happen at an April 29 meeting of the state elections board, which must certify the results before they take effect.
Under the new amendment, the justices have to decide every two years who they want to serve as chief justice. There are no specifics about how that is to be done or when the first decision has to be made.
The chief serves as lead administrator for the state court system, with power to assign judges and justices for cases below the Supreme Court level, designate and assign reserve judges and schedule oral arguments before the high court, among other duties.
Supporters of the change say it’s undemocratic to have the position go automatically to the justice with the most experience.
Only six other states use a similar seniority-based system as Wisconsin, while 22 others have a peer selection process.
Voters approved the amendment by about a 6-point margin, based on unofficial results.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state chamber of commerce, spent at least $600,000 on an effort to get the amendment passed. Liberal advocacy group the Greater Wisconsin Committee worked to defeat both the amendment.
Bradley coasted to victory over Daley, winning by about 16 points based on unofficial results.
Bradley and Abrahamson make up the liberal minority on the court that in recent years has been at the center of the some of the biggest political fights in the state, including upholding Gov. Scott Walker’s law effectively ending collective bargaining for public workers.
Daley described himself as a conservative and he actively courted Republican voters, and accepted donations from the GOP party, in his failed attempt at knocking off Bradley. She argued that Daley was politicizing the race; he said Bradley should be removed because she is at the center of a dysfunctional court.
“I think the message was loud and clear to keep partisan politics out of the judiciary,” Bradley told The Associated Press after her victory. “People in this state want a judiciary that’s nonpartisan. Political parties have agendas.”
Daley issued a statement saying the election showed “first-hand the power of incumbency, as liberal special interests band together to protect their candidate.”