Wisconsin: bills that could effectively remove sitting chief justice from office moving at rapid clip

Two different efforts, both apparently directed at getting Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson off the bench, are moving at a rapid clip in the Wisconsin legislation.

SJR 1 is a constitutional amendment to change the way the office of chief justice is chosen. Presently

The justice having been longest a continuous member of said court, or in case 2 or more such justices shall have served for the same length of time, the justice whose term first expires, shall be the chief justice. (Art. VII, Sec. 4)

AJR 1 and SJR 2, originally adopted as SJR 57 in the 2013/2014 session, would shift the process to one in which the 7-member court elects a chief justice from among themselves every two years. In order to appear on the April 2015 ballot (i.e. the next possible election) the legislature will have to approve it 70 days prior to the election: Tuesday, April 7, 2015 – 70 days = Tuesday, January 27, 2015. The amendment was apparently announced with only 24 hours notice in a Senate committee.

Meanwhile Senate and Assembly Democrats offered up amendments to specifically provide AJR 1 and SJR 2 do not apply retroactively, allowing Abrahamson to remain chief justice. Both failed on a party line votes, the Senate amendment on the Senate floor on January 20 and the Assembly one in committee. A second Senate amendment, this one to push the vote on the amendment to November 2016, is being debated at the time of this posting on the Senate floor. UPDATE: killed on party line vote.

SJR 1 is being debated now on the Senate floor.

AJR 1 is pending before the Assembly Rules Committee. That committee meets today (January 20) to set the agenda for Assembly floor action on January 22.

The second effort, this one a statutory one discussed here in December 2013, would create a mandatory judicial retirement age that could force Chief Justice Abrahamson off the court entirely. As I noted in December, since an amendment adopted in the 1970s the state‚Äôs constitution has not specified a mandatory judicial retirement age but leaves it to the legislature to decide (so long as it is not below age 70). The legislature hasn’t opted to pick an age until just last month, when a draft bill to that end was circulated setting the age at 70 or 75. A key question here, as in the case of AJR 1/SJR 2, is whether or not it will include a “grandmother clause” providing the new age will apply only to new justices/judges and not currently sitting ones.