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Longtime Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Abrahamson dies at 87

Death of the Jewish judge, who served as chief justice for a record 19 years, comes after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer

Supreme Court chief justice Shirley Abrahamson questions state attorney general J.B. Van Hollen, during arguments in Madison Teachers Inc. vs. Scott Walker, in the Wisconsin Supreme Court at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, November 11, 2013. (M.P. King /Wisconsin State Journal via AP, Pool, File)
Supreme Court chief justice Shirley Abrahamson questions state attorney general J.B. Van Hollen, during arguments in Madison Teachers Inc. vs. Scott Walker, in the Wisconsin Supreme Court at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, November 11, 2013. (M.P. King /Wisconsin State Journal via AP, Pool, File)

MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) — Shirley Abrahamson, the longest-serving Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in state history and the first woman to serve on the high court, has died. She was 87.

Abrahamson, who also served as chief justice for a record 19 years, died Saturday, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her son Dan Abrahamson told the Journal Sentinel newspaper in Milwaukee.

Court spokesman Tom Sheehan did not immediately return messages left by The Associated Press, and an automatic email reply said he would not be in until December 28. A number for Dan Abrahamson could not be found.

Long recognized as a top legal scholar nationally and a leader among state judges, Abrahamson wrote more than 450 majority opinions and participated in more than 3,500 written decisions during her more than four decades on Wisconsin’s highest court. She retired in 2019.

In 1993, then-president Bill Clinton considered putting her on the US Supreme Court, and she was later profiled in the book, “Great American Judges: An Encyclopedia.”

She told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2006 that she enjoyed being on the court.

“It has a mix of sitting, reading and writing and thinking, which I enjoy doing. And it’s quiet. On the other hand, all of the problems I work on are real problems of real people, and it matters to them, and it matters to the state of Wisconsin. So that gives an edge to it, and a stress,” she said.

Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson acknowledges a crowd of supporters on April 6, 1999, in Madison, Wisconsin, during her re-election party to the State Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

The New York City native, with the accent to prove it, graduated first in her class from Indiana University Law School in 1956, three years after her marriage to Seymour Abrahamson. The couple moved to Madison and her husband, a world-renowned geneticist, joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty in 1961. He died in 2016.

She earned a law degree from UW-Madison in 1962. Abrahamson, who was Jewish, worked as a professor and joined a Madison law firm, hired by the father of future governor Jim Doyle, in 1962.

She led the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1967 to 1974, and helped rewrite the city’s equal opportunities law in 1963.

Appointed to the state’s high court by then-governor Patrick Lucey in 1976, Abrahamson won reelection four times to 10-year terms, starting in 1979. She broke the record for longest-serving in justice in 2013, her 36th year on the court.

Abrahamson was in the majority when the court in 2005 allowed a boy to sue over lead paint injuries, even though he could not prove which company made the product that sickened him — undoing decades of precedent and opening paint companies to lawsuits seeking damages.

But Abrahamson found herself in the minority on several high-profile cases later in her career, including in 2011, when the court upheld the law championed by Republican then-Gov. Scott Walker effectively ending public employee union rights, and again in 2015, when the court ended a politically charged investigation into Walker and conservative groups.

Abrahamson’s health began to fail in 2018. She frequently missed court hearings, participating by phone or not at all. That May, she announced she would not run again in 2019, and in August, she revealed she had cancer.

Doyle, a former Wisconsin attorney general and two-term governor, called Abrahamson a pioneer and said he sought her advice when he first ran for Dane County district attorney in the 1970s.

Doyle in 2018 called her “one of the great leaders in Wisconsin government.” He credited her with working to demystify the court by holding hearings around the state and meeting with school groups and others to discuss its work.

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, left, takes the oath of office from Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, during a swearing in ceremony at the State Capitol, January 3, 2007, in Madison. Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

In addition to breaking barriers for women, Doyle said Abrahamson had been a champion of civil rights and civil liberties, a protector of basic constitutional rights, and a strong advocate for open government and public records.

“She brought the court to the people of Wisconsin by the force of her own personality, by the decisions she rendered, and is somebody who really looked to protect the people of Wisconsin and their basic constitutional rights,” Doyle said.

Abrahamson was not without her enemies, both on the court and among Republican lawmakers who pushed a constitutional amendment in 2015 that led to her ouster as chief justice. The voter-approved amendment enabled members of the court to choose the chief justice — who oversees the state court system — instead of requiring the title go to the most senior justice.

Abrahamson, who became chief in 1996, was quickly voted out by conservative justices who held a majority on the court when the new law took effect in 2015.

Although she often clashed with more conservative members of the court, and drew support from liberals and Democrats, Abrahamson steadfastly maintained that she was an independent voice.

“When I joined the court, I was given a voice — a voice that I have not hesitated to use,” Abrahamson said in a May 2018 statement announcing her decision not to seek re-election. “The best expression of appreciation I can give the people who have elected and repeatedly reelected me is to continue to speak with the clarity, forthrightness, and compassion that come from a life I have tried to devote to service and to justice for all.”

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