With Courage and Passion: The Inspired Leadership of Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson

Article excerpt

To write of the many accomplishments of Shirley S. Abrahamson as a legal scholar, jurist, and chief justice in a short essay is to look at a masterpiece through a microscope. Each squint reveals a splash of the depth and substance of this remarkable woman, but only by stepping back can we appreciate the profound impact of her work. With brilliance, unwavering dedication, and a caring heart, Shirley Abrahamson accomplishes the impossible every day. In covering her own words in sweat, she inspires hard work and dedication in people who labor in every facet of the justice system.

The leadership that she demonstrates as chief justice is colored by the same courage, optimism, concern for the individual, and deep sense of fairness that characterize her opinions. Her legal scholarship has brought her international acclaim, leadership positions in national organizations, fourteen honorary doctor of law degrees, and lecture requests from around the world. She is a prolific legal writer and has contributed to numerous law reviews and journals. My task here, however, is not to list her substantial contribution to American jurisprudence. Rather, I want to share my personal sense of Shirley Abrahamson as a leader with the grace, modesty, and generosity to inspire others not just to follow, but to join her in leading.

Shirley Abrahamson's vision for a justice system that is open, understandable, and accessible is rooted in her earliest experiences. The daughter of shopkeepers--immigrants from Poland who learned to speak English on the streets of New York--Chief Justice Abrahamson developed a profound appreciation for the value of education and for the power of the law as a tool for change. She graduated first in her class from Indiana University Law School. Traditionally, the top graduate could expect a bevy of offers from law firms, but Shirley Abrahamson was no typical graduate. She was a woman and she was Jewish. Job opportunities were, therefore, few and far between. Her first employer found her suited for indexing state constitutions.

After moving to Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, Shirley Abrahamson found a law firm that was willing to hire her. She quickly distinguished herself as a successful lawyer in private practice. While with the law firm, she also taught at the University of Wisconsin Law School and was one of the first two women to join the faculty. In 1976, she became the first woman appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She has subsequently been reelected in three statewide, contested races. For seventeen years, she was the only woman on the court. It was not until 1993 that the Wisconsin Supreme Court welcomed a second female justice, Janine Geske. I was elected to the court in 1995.

What I have come to learn over these past nine years on the court is that leadership matters. Shirley Abrahamson is a uniquely gifted leader. Serving as chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court since 1996, she has shaped the contours of Wisconsin's approach to the administration of justice.

The hallmarks of her administration are openness and accessibility. No longer are the supreme court's appointments to boards, committees, and commissions reserved for only those who know a justice. Instead the process is open. It is inclusive rather than exclusive. An appointment selection committee that sifts and winnows the applications made from around the state now replaces the old network. Emphasis is placed on having members of the public serve along with lawyers and judges. The committee makes recommendations to the supreme court for qualified appointments that represent diverse populations, backgrounds, and geographic areas of the state.

Not only has the process of administration changed, but, at the urging of Chief Justice Abrahamson, the forum where the supreme court conducts its administrative business has also changed. Under her leadership, the Wisconsin Supreme Court was the first in the nation to open its administrative conferences to the public. …