Shirley Abrahamson spent more than four decades serving on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She was the longest-serving justice on the state’s high court, only retiring from the bench in July 2019 at the age of 85. She also holds the distinction of being the first woman to serve on the Court.
After nearly sixty years in the Badger state, she relocated to the Bay Area last September to be closer to her family. It was there that she passed away this weekend, just two days after her 87th birthday.
Speaking with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, her son Daniel attributed the death to pancreatic cancer. Her passing came a little over two years after she publicly disclosed that she’d been diagnosed with cancer, although at the time she didn’t specify the type.
During her career, Abrahamson was one of the court’s strongest liberal voices, although she always stated that she was an independent. She championed civil rights, pro-labor causes and open government policies.
Before her role on the state’s high court, she was the first female attorney at a local Madison law firm. During that time, Abrahmson helped draft Madison’s historic 1963 Equal Opportunities Ordinance, which included the first codified provisions for fair housing in the state.
Towards the end of her career, Abrahamson voted to strike down 2011’s Act Ten laws, which undercut the state’s public-sector unions. According to the Associated Press, she also voted against ending a 2015 investigation into former Republican Governor Scott Walker and other conservative groups.
Abrahamson was first appointed to the bench by Democratic Governor Patrick Lucey in 1976. It was around this time that she met one of her eventual successors — justice Jill Karofsky, who was elected to the court earlier this year.
Karofsky says that she first met Abrahamson through her son, Daniel. But, Justice Abrahamson would continue to be a fixture in her professional career in the ensuing years.
“Dan and I grew up going to camp Shalom together on the shores of Lake Monona. That was how I first knew her, as this nice young guy’s mother,” Karofsky says. “In 1992, she swore me in when I became a lawyer in Wisconsin…I contacted her both before I ran for circuit court and supreme court and she was really supportive of me.”
When discussing Abrahamson’s legacy in Wisconsin, many draw parallels between her and the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away in September. Ginsburg was the second woman appointed to the US Supreme Court, and she passed away while on the bench.
The two shared a deep professional respect for each other.
Abrahamson almost occupied Ginsburg’s place in the U.S. Supreme Court. According to the AP, in 1993 she was one of the candidates considered by then-President Bill Clinton to fill the court vacancy — a seat which was ultimately given to the late Ginsburg.
One of Abrahamson’s last public appearances was a celebration at the state capitol building last June honoring her life and work. During that event, Ginsburg appeared in a pre-recorded video to commend Abrahamson on her service in the Badger state.
“In her forty years and more on Wisconsin’s supreme court — as justice, then chief justice — she has been ever-mindful of the people — all of the people law exists or should exist to serve,” Ginsburg said in the video. “She never forgets Dr. Seuss’ gentle maxim; ‘A person’s a person, no matter how small.’”
Lester Pines is a long-time Madison attorney. During his forty-plus year career, he argued a number of cases before Abrahamson. He says that her calm and methodical approach in oral arguments earned her the respect of both those on the bench and those on the other side.
“Justice Abrahamson was a brilliant jurist who was always very well prepared for oral arguments,” he says. “She was extremely courteous and had great respect for the lawyers who appeard before her. Her questions were always insightful and designed to really probe the legal issues before the court.”
Janine Geske served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court from 1993 to 1998 and was the second woman to sit on the state’s high court after Abrahamson.
She says that Abrahamson approached her role on the court as both a justice and an educator. Abrahamson who, in her early career, taught at the University of Wisconsin Law School, established a number of public outreach programs to teach students and residents about how the court system functioned.
But, Geske adds that Abrahamson’s teacher-like mentality didn’t stop with members of the public — it also extended to her fellow justices.
“When I got to the court, we would each be assigned opinions and we would work on them and then circulate them among ourselves and if justices had issues or problems with something you had written, they were to submit something to you in writing,” Geske says.
“The first time I had an opinion circulated, I got a multi-paged, single-space document from Shirley.”
“During my time on the court, I have regularly given everyone a piece of my mind. I’m talking, of course, about my opinions,” Abrahamson said in one of her final public appearances last summer.
“My first opinion was long ago in 1976,” she continued. “I’m not going to tell you about my last opinion because I’m still working on it and I don’t know how it ends. But I do want to end on this note today: The need for an independent judiciary, both in this state and in the country, has never been greater. As partisan sentiment escalates beyond productive to poisonous, so too does the importance of a neutral and fair judicial branch at every level.”
(Photo: Daderot / WikiMedia Commons)