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Judge dismisses former chief justice's lawsuit challenging colleagues' ability to strip title

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MADISON, Wisconsin — A federal judge has dismissed former Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson's lawsuit alleging her colleagues improperly stripped her of her title, ruling the justices were within their authority under a newly adopted constitutional amendment.

Voters approved a Republican-authored amendment April 7 that allowed the justices to select their chief rather than automatically giving the title to the longest-serving justice. The liberal-leaning Abrahamson had held the title since 1996 but the court's conservative majority removed her hours after the election results were certified April 29, elevating Justice Pat Roggensack to the position.

Abrahamson, 81, filed a lawsuit April 8, arguing the other justices couldn't remove her as chief until her current term expires in 2019. She maintained that the amendment didn't include an implementation date so it didn't give voters or Abrahamson adequate notice of when it would apply.

But U.S. District Judge James Peterson ruled Friday that the amendment was effective April 29 and the justices were authorized to pick a new leader that day.

"There is no requirement that a state, in restructuring its government or the powers and duties of its officials by means of a constitutional amendment, do so with super-clarity to protect the interests of the officials or voters whose interests might be impaired," Peterson wrote.

Abrahamson's attorney, Robert Stephen Peck, didn't immediately respond Saturday to an email seeking comment.

The battle over who holds the chief's title is another in a long line of public skirmishes between the ideologically divided court. The seven justices are officially nonpartisan, but Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley are widely viewed as liberal and have been openly feuding with the four-justice conservative majority for years. The conservatives have bristled at Abrahamson's leadership style and in 2011, Bradley and conservative-leaning Justice David Prosser got into a physical altercation in the court's chambers.

The GOP-controlled Legislature began developing the chief justice selection amendment in 2013, sparking cries from opponents that it was a clear attempt to hurt Abrahamson.

Peterson noted the discourse between the justices in the first sentence of his 35-page opinion, lamenting that, "The Wisconsin Supreme Court, once a sterling example among state supreme courts, has hit a long rough patch, and it has become notorious for the fractiousness of its members."


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