Friday, January 16, 2015

Civil Discourse - An Occasional Attempt To Restore Civility To Our Civic Discourse

By Roger Utnehmer

Two legislative proposals under consideration in Madison would inject politics into what should be a non-partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court. One proposal would have the chief justice, now determined by seniority, elected by a majority of members. The other would require justices to retire at age seventy-five.

Both appear to target Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

The seven member court is divided. Four justices are described as conservative and three as liberal. Abrahamson, regarded as liberal, would probably not be elected chief justice if the selection were put to a vote of the court. Selecting the chief justice based on seniority keeps politics out of the process.

The proposal to require retirement at seventy-five also targets Abrahamson who is eighty-one. Voters knew her age when they overwhelmingly re-elected her in 2009.

If representatives are sincere when they deny the personal focus of this legislation is the removal of Chief Justice Abrahamson, then the proposals should be amended by grandfathering existing members of the court and making them effective with future elections.

Pendulums swing back and forth. There may be a time when liberals are the majority and a conservative has the most seniority. Supporters of the anti-Abrahamson legislation would then regret their changes. Former Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus often said, “Let the people decide.” The people of Wisconsin have decided to re-elect Shirley Abrahamson by large margins. That should be good enough. Legislators need to stop targeting a chief justice with whom they do not agree and respect the will of the people who elected her four times.


People of good will may disagree about mandatory retirement and term limits for elected officials. A very wise former state senator argued compellingly against them. Clifford “Tiny” Krueger represented the 12th senate district for thirty-two years. Term limits, Krueger said, would empower the bureaucrats and diminish the influence of the legislative branch. If elected officials were limited to the number of terms they could serve, Krueger argued, the executive branch would become powerful by simply waiting for elected officials to be termed out of office. The result would be an imbalance of power favoring the executive branch of state government. Frustrated voters believe term limits will make government more responsive to the people when, in fact, they would more likely have the exact opposite effect.

That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours.

Roger Utnehmer is President and CEO of, and a member of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board.

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