Federal judge denies initial request to block Supreme Court referendum

A federal judge denied state Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s request to block implementation of a constitutional amendment that would change the selection process for her position.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson did not rule on the merits of Abrahamson’s case but said a temporary injunction was too extreme.

“I have made no determination of the merits of plaintiffs’ case,” Peterson said in the ruling. “But I will deny the motion for … a temporary restraining order because [Abrahamson] has not shown that I should take the extraordinary step of issuing an injunction without hearing from defendants.”

Abrahamson’s lawsuit against the state and her peers on the court argues the changes to the selection process defrauds voters because the electorate knew Abrahamson would be chief justice when they re-elected her to another 10-year term in 2009.

Peterson said Abrahamson could revive the motion “if new evidence shows the need for it,” but he added he hoped for “a prompt resolution” on the matter so that course of action wouldn’t be necessary.

Voters passed the constitutional amendment Tuesday to allow the other justices to elect the chief justice position. This marks a change from the present system in which the longest-tenured justice automatically serves as the head of the state’s highest court.

UW-Madison Political Science professor Barry Burden said the conflict is a culmination of months and years of “partisan squabble” within the high court.

“The [state] Supreme Court has become a real flashpoint for battles between the left and right. It has become bitter and personal,” Burden said. “Conservatives are upset the chief justice continues to be liberal while [Abrahamson] is trying to keep the forces at bay for a few years until liberals could potentially wrestle [the court] back. So it is both a debate over how to elect the chief justice and a petty partisan squabble.”

Burden says the change is reasonable but that it changes a law which has existed for over a century.

“[The constitutional amendment] is not unreasonable, there are a bunch of reasonable ways to elect justices,” Burden said. “It just changes a status quo that has existed for a long time and you need a good reason to do that. It is a change to voter expectations.”

Peterson scheduled a hearing on the matter April 21.

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