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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fair
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Wisconsin Supreme Court incumbent Shirley Abrahamson: Without an agenda
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Shirley Abrahamson: "I'm full of ideas. And there's lots to do."
Shirley Abrahamson: "I'm full of ideas. And there's lots to do."
Credit:Christopher Guess

Shirley Abrahamson, 75, was born and raised in Manhattan, the daughter of Polish immigrant shopkeepers. She got her law degree from Indiana University Law School, worked as an attorney in private practice in Madison and taught at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Gov. Patrick Lucey appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1976; she was elected in 1979, reelected in 1989 and 1999, having become chief justice in 1996. The position currently pays $152,495 a year.

Abrahamson has taken part in more than 3,500 high court rulings and written more than 450 majority opinions. She's played a lead role in improving the state court system, including the creation of programs to help individuals who lack counsel. And she's served as president of the national Conference of Chief Justices. (For more information, see abrahamson2009.com.)

Universally regarded as both wise (she has 15 honorary law degrees) and charming, Abrahamson is a tireless worker and the court's most visible public ambassador. But she's also seen as domineering and perhaps a bit too aware of her intellectual superiority.

Abrahamson came alone to an early morning interview at Isthmus. Here's an abridged version reconstructed from notes and checked with the chief for accuracy. This account mostly omits topics covered in Isthmus' main story on the race.


Bill Lueders: I'm 49 and to can't wait to retire. You're 75 and you're seeking another ten-year term. Why not step aside and give someone else a chance?
Abrahamson: I've had very good jobs in my life. This is the best job, plus it gives me the opportunity to work for the people of this state. The job of Supreme Court justice [draws on] all of the experiences I've had. It combines knowledge of the law and Constitution with common sense.

I'm full of ideas, just full of ideas. And there's lots to do. [Abrahamson describes one recent inspiration, to use video-conferencing technology in county courtrooms to allow parents and guardians to "visit" with inmates at the state juvenile detention center in Wales. She also relates her efforts to identify veterans coming into court to make sure they are aware of available services.]


How would you describe the choice between yourself and your opponent?
Let me tell you about myself. I treat each case separately. I examine the facts and the law and apply the law to the facts, without a personal ideology, without an agenda, without outside influences.


And Randy Koschnick?
He describes himself in a variety of ways but when you listen closely he seems to say he's going to impose a particular ideology. He says he doesn't legislate from the bench but he has a history of legislating from the bench. [She describes several cases in which Koschnick's decisions were overturned on appeal.] In each of these cases the appellate court said he exceeded his authority and imposed his personal view on the parties, not the rule of law.


Some people, myself included, are going to vote for you because they think you are, for want of a better word, liberal. We think you will uphold the rights of injured parties and criminal defendants. Are we wrong?
I don't label myself because I don't know what these labels mean. I care about the people of Wisconsin. I care about the law. I care about the Wisconsin and U.S. Constitutions. I care about the guarantees in the statutes and constitutions. I care about the responsibility imposed by law on each of us. Labels are meaningless.

I try to do the best I can on each case. People should vote for me because I come to each case without a label, without an ideology, without pre-judging the case. I decide cases on the basis of what the facts and law require.


You've said you support changes in campaign financing to ensure an independent judiciary that isn't beholden to special interests. Do you think there are state Supreme Court justices in Wisconsin who are beholden to special interests?
We expect all judges in the state to call 'em like they see 'em, based on the facts and the law. That's their ethical and legal obligation and we expect them to [comply].


But why is change needed to ensure a fair and impartial court? Are there justices now who are beholden to special interests?
I think not. It is a problem of perception, which is why you're asking this. We've had campaigns with large amounts of money, and all seven justices have asked the Legislature to accept public campaign financing for Supreme Court justices. [But] the public may have an inaccurate perception that judges have become beholden.


Is that all it is -- a perception?
Public perception is very important. Perception can become reality in the public's mind.


If someone asked me, I'd say it's not just a perception. There's truth to it.
That may be your view. It doesn't have to be mine.

Last November, you predicted that total spending by candidates in this race could top $5 million. Do you still think so? How much do you plan to spend?
Various reports indicate large out-of-state funds may come into the race against me. The campaign will spend what the campaign raises. We'll see what the people in this state contribute.


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