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Wisconsin could have new chief justice soon after judge declines to block amendment

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MADISON, Wisconsin — The Wisconsin Supreme Court could have a new chief justice soon, after a federal judge on Tuesday refused to block a voter-approved change in how the head of the court is selected.

Current Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson filed the federal lawsuit one day after voters on April 7 approved the constitutional amendment changing the selection process. U.S. District Judge James Peterson on Tuesday refused to block the law's implementation while Abrahamson's lawsuit is pending, saying there would be no irreparable harm if she were temporarily removed from the post she's held since 1996.

The amendment allows the seven justices on the court to choose who is chief justice, changing the 126-year practice of having it go to the most senior justice. The four-justice conservative majority is expected to vote Abrahamson out after the state elections board certifies the vote on April 29.

Abrahamson, who is part of the two-justice liberal minority, does not want the change to take effect until after her term ends in four years.

Peterson said he hoped the other six justices would not act in haste to replace her.

"The state would be well-served to have as few changes in chief justice as possible," Peterson said.

Abrahamson's attorney, Robert S. Peck, said after the hearing that "there's no compelling reason for them to go ahead and select a new chief justice at this time." The court's current term is over at the end of June and the new one starts in August.

Peck had argued that it would be better to maintain the status quo while Abrahamson's case proceeds, and even if she is ousted as chief justice for a short period that amounts to irreparable harm.

Kevin St. John, the attorney for five of the other justices, said it was their view that once the amendment is certified, Abrahamson is no longer chief justice and there would be no chief until a new one is selected. St. John said he did not know when the justices may vote on selecting a chief.

Peck argued that Abrahamson holds the office until she vacates it or her term ends in 2019.

The judge set the next arguments in the case on Abrahamson's motion for a preliminary injunction for May 15. Peterson said he hoped to have a final ruling in the case by mid-summer. Any decision is likely to be appealed to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Also on Tuesday, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley told the court that she would represent herself in the case rather than go along with the other five justices who have St. John, a former Republican deputy attorney general, as their attorney.

Bradley opposed the amendment and is a close ally of Abrahamson's on the court.

St. John was hired at taxpayer expense by Gov. Scott Walker's top legal adviser to represent the justices after Attorney General Brad Schimel said the Department of Justice had conflicts in representing them. St. John will earn $300 an hour, with total expenses capped at $100,000.

St. John is representing Justices David Prosser, Pat Roggensack, Annette Ziegler, Michael Gableman and Patrick Crooks. Crooks is considered a swing vote on the court, but last week he publicly criticized Abrahamson for bringing the lawsuit, calling it unfortunate.


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