Saturday, April 11, 2015

Shirley Abrahamson gets the last laugh

I remember well from Trusts and Estates in law school a professor saying that you should make your worst enemy the personal representative (executor) of your estate because you would be getting the last laugh.

That pretty much sums up what happened this week when special interests spent big bucks engineering an essentially useless state constitutional amendment ostensibly aimed at dethroning Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The amendment, which is being challenged by Abrahamson in federal court, allows the justices to elect the chief justice instead of the title -- and responsibilities -- falling on the most senior jurist on the court.

The not-so-hidden agenda was to get back at Abrahamson who is considered to be the ringleader of the court's so-called liberal minority and to allow a more conservative member of the court to take her place.  

The problem is that the people pushing this had no idea what the chief justice really does.  Yes, the chief is the chief as such the presiding judge of the court and its most prominent public figure.  In reality, though, the chief justice gets an extra $8,000 a year to do largely administrative and almost exclusively nonpartisan work.  

In plain terms, it's like giving David Letterman $8,000 more a year to sign off on his show's payroll and purchase orders, approve the budget request and hiring of stage hands and negotiating with CBS at budget time.  In short, it's pretty much like making your worst enemy the personal representative of your estate -- a mundane task that has to be done.

Of course where it failed big is that Shirley Abrahamson, when and if the amendment is certified and she loses her title, is still a member of the court where the chief justice, whoever it is, only has one vote.  The philosophical makeup of the court hasn't changed and a change in the chief justice won't change that.

But, when the rubber hits the road, if I was one of the conservative majority I'd probably vote for Shirley to remain as chief justice.  Apart from any nonpartisan concerns about political incursion into judicial independence, she is the most qualified person for the job which is a deeply held conservative principle -- hiring should be based on qualifications.  Plus, given what the job really is, it's a lot like making your worst enemy your personal representative.

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