Chief Justice Abrahamson Becomes Longest-Serving Justice in Wisconsin History

 This week the Wisconsin Supreme Court marked a major milestone, as Chief Justice Abrahamson became the longest serving supreme court justice in Wisconsin history. During her current term in office she will also break the record for longest serving Chief Justice.


A press release from the court system notes:

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson became the longest serving supreme court justice in Wisconsin history, marking 36 years, seven months and four days of service on April 10, 2013.

Abrahamson’s tenure surpasses the next longest serving justice, Orsamus Cole, who served on the Court from 1855-92, including 12 years as chief justice.

Since joining the Court, Abrahamson has written an estimated 499 majority opinions, 296 concurrences, 46 concur/dissents, and 405 dissents. Her opinions span 271 volumes of the Wisconsin Reports, which maintains a record of court decisions.

Abrahamson was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Patrick Lucey in 1976. She was the first woman to serve on the Court, which now consists of four women and three men. She won election to the court in 1979 and was re-elected in 1989, 1999, and 2009. She has been chief justice since Aug. 1, 1996.

Abrahamson was sworn in on Sept. 6, 1976, and her first opinion was released on Oct. 5, 1976, less than a month after she was sworn in. A.I.C. Financial Corp. v. Commercial Units, Inc., 74 Wis. 2d 70, 245 N.W.2d 923 (1976). It dealt with a judgment for foreclosure. Her first dissent was issued just two weeks later, on Oct. 19, 1976.

The first 4-3 vote Abrahamson participated in addressed whether she could be sworn in in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol, or if the ceremony had to be held in the much smaller Supreme Court Hearing Room.

As people began arriving for the ceremony, the court held a long discussion in the conference room about whether it would be better to have standing room only in the Hearing Room or a potentially empty-feeling Assembly Chamber. Abrahamson cast the deciding vote to move it to the Assembly Chamber, and the room was packed.

The calculation that Abrahamson is now the longest-serving justice in Wisconsin history was made by Madison attorney and legal historian Joseph A. Ranney, who has authored dozens of articles on Wisconsin’s legal heritage.

Born and raised in New York City, Abrahamson received her bachelor’s degrees from New York University (NYU) in 1953, her law degree from Indiana University Law School in 1956, and a doctorate of law in American legal history in 1962 from the UW Law School. She is the recipient of 15 honorary doctor of laws degrees and the Distinguished Alumni Award of the UW-Madison.

Before joining the Supreme Court, Abrahamson was in private practice in Madison for 14 years and was a professor at the UW Law School. She is a past president of the National Conference of Chief Justices and past chair of the board of directors of the National Center for State Courts. She also has served as chair of the National Institute of Justice’s National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. She is a member of the Council of the American Law Institute, the NYU School of Law Institute of Judicial Administration. She also has served on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Commission on the Delivery of Legal Services, the American Bar Association’s Coalition for Justice, and the National Academies’ Science, Technology and Law panel.

She is a fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an elected member of the American Philosophical Society. In 2004, she received the American Judicature Society’s Dwight D. Opperman Award for Judicial Excellence. In 2009, the National Center for State Courts awarded her the Harry L. Carrico Award for Judicial Innovation, for serving as a national leader in safeguarding judicial independence, improving inter-branch relations, and expanding outreach to the public. In 2010, she was awarded the American Bar Association’s John Marshall Award in recognition of “her exemplary lifelong commitment and dedication to the improvement of the administration of justice.”

Abrahamson is listed in Great American Judges (Top 100): An Encyclopedia (John R. Vile ed. 2003), in The Lawdragon 500 Leading Lawyers in America (2005), and in The Lawdragon 500 Leading Judges in America (2006).

Abrahamson and her husband, Seymour, have a son, Daniel. Her current term expires July 31, 2019.

For more information about Wisconsin legal history, contact Atty. Joseph A. Ranney at 608-283-5612 or Many of Ranney’s articles can be found on the Supreme Court’s Web site at:

Additional information on Wisconsin Supreme Court justices can be found in the book “Portraits of Justice,” which can be found online at:

Tom Sheehan
Court Information Officer
(608) 261-6640