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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

 2:36 PM 

Senate approves amendment to change how chief justice selected

The Senate today signed off on a constitutional amendment changing how the Wisconsin chief justice is selected.

With 17-14 vote along party lines, the Senate sent the amendment to the Assembly, which plans to take it up Thursday. If it clears that house, it would go the voters April 7.

The post now goes to the justice with the most seniority, and Shirley Abrahamson has held it since 1996. The amendment would allow the court members to select the chief justice.

Dems warned of unintended consequences because of how the amendment was drafted. For example, they complained the amendment did not cover a series of factors such as how the election for a chief justice would be held and how the court would handle three justices seeking the post. They also circulated a memo from email from Legislative Council attorneys that if the amendment was approved by voters, the court would not have a chief justice after the results were certified until the justices held a vote.

At one point, amendment author Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, suggested the change could help the Supreme Court operate better after a “dust up” a couple of years ago, referencing a physical altercation between Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and David Prosser.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, took issue with that characterization of the incident, which he noted involved Bradley accusing Prosser of placing his hands on her neck and choking her.

“A constitutional amendment won’t fix that,” Erpenbach said. “Counseling might, but a constitutional amendment won’t fix that.”

Tiffany acknowledged he didn’t have emails from constituents urging lawmakers to change how the Supreme Court justice is picked. But he said a number of them asked what was going on with the court after reports surfaced of the altercation involving Prosser and Bradley.

He insisted the amendment was not targeting Abrahamson and said he did not assume she would lose the post if the justices were allowed to vote.

“There is no effort here to try to deny someone their position,” he said.


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