Abrahamson Loses Lawsuit to Retain Role as Chief Justice

Federal District Court Judge James Peterson, of the Western District of Wisconsin, granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed Justice Abrahamson’s lawsuit against the State on Friday, July 31.

Justice Abrahamson sued in an attempt to retain her position as Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court after voters ratified an amendment to the state constitution, which allows the justices to select who the chief justice is. Chief Justice Roggensack replaced Justice Abrahamson as chief justice on April 29 when Chief Justice Roggensack and three of her colleagues voted her in for a two-year term. Justice Abrahamson challenged Roggensack’s elevation, requesting an injunction, but in a hearing deciding the issue, Judge Peterson rejected Abrahamson’s request stating he did not see the irreparable harm of Chief Justice Roggensack administering the court system while the case was decided.

In her complaint, Justice Abrahamson sought declaratory judgment from the court to determine when the new constitutional amendment will come into effect. She argued that the amendment is prospective only and therefore does not apply until the end of her elected term in 2019. Alternatively, she argued that a retroactive application of the amendment would change the terms of her office, which would violate the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Chief Justice also argued that she has a property interest in her office and it is being taken without due process of law. She further argued that retroactive application of the amendment violates the Equal Protection Clause because no other elected official elected to a full term and still able to hold office would be “prematurely ousted from office on that basis.” 

In granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, Judge Peterson decided that there was little sense in a federal court interpreting how the state would interpret the amendment since the state already interpreted it through the state Supreme Court’s election of Chief Justice Roggensack. Judge Peterson also found that while Justice Abrahamson had a property interest in her position as chief justice protected by the due process clause, the state had provided more than adequate due process through the amendment’s ratification process. Furthermore, Abrahamson’s substantive due process and equal protection rights were not violated because the State had a rational basis for passing the amendment, providing for more effective leadership on the court.

On Tuesday, August 11, Justice Abrahamson dropped her appeal of Judge Peterson’s initial ruling against her request for an injunction. Lawyers representing Justice Abrahamson said she is weighing whether to appeal the final ruling.