Despite the great divide, Abrahamson earned her place in history.
Shirley Abrahamson, who served longer than anyone else in the history of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, attracted both high praise and scathing criticism.
Translation: She lived a meaningful life and made a commensurate difference on the court.
Abrahamson, who died a few days ago at age 87, was appointed as a Supreme Court justice by then-Gov. Patrick Lucey in 1976. Subsequently, she was elected to four 10-year terms. She left the court in failing health in 2019, having served more than 40 years including 19 as chief justice.
Her reputation as one of America’s leading legal scholars stretched far beyond Wisconsin, and earned her consideration for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. While that distinction eluded Abrahamson, her opinions and her dissents carried weight and often were cited nationally.
She was the anchor of the liberal wing of the court, which made her a lightning rod. Revered by the left, she was a frequent target of the right. When conservatives captured firm control of the court, removing Abrahamson as chief justice was at the top of the agenda. A constitutional amendment did the trick in 2015.
This newspaper has been highly critical of the court’s politicization for many years, and Abrahamson could be part of that problem. She was a Madison liberal, no two ways about it. But she also was a brilliant jurist who deserves to be remembered for more than her progressive tendencies. She devoted her life to serving Wisconsin and, usually, served it very well.
She was a barrier breaker, the first woman on the court. She was accessible to the public and had a sense of humor, a rare commodity on the court. She was prolific and worked harder than just about anyone.
She became a Wisconsin original, even if she was a native New Yorker. Chief Justice Abrahamson earned her lasting place of respect in Wisconsin.