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Wisconsin Supreme Court

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Wisconsin Supreme Court
Court information
Justices:   7
Chief:  $
Associates:  $
Judicial selection
Method:   non-partisan election of judges
Term:   10 years
Active justices

Shirley Abrahamson  •  Ann Walsh Bradley  •  N. Patrick Crooks  •  Patience Roggensack  •  Annette Ziegler  •  Michael Gableman  •  David T. Prosser  •  

Seal of Wisconsin.png

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is the highest appellate court in the state of Wisconsin. Seven justices, selected in non-partisan elections, sit on the state's court of last resort.


While justices are selected in non-partisan elections, a party identification is provided if a justice is generally associated with a political party.

The current justices of the court are:
JudgeTermSelected byParty
Chief justice Shirley Abrahamson1976-2019Gov. Patrick LuceyDemocratic
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley1995-2015ElectedDemocratic
Justice N. Patrick Crooks1996-2016ElectedRepublican
Justice Patience Roggensack2003-2023ElectedRepublican
Justice Annette Ziegler2007-2017ElectedRepublican
Justice Michael Gableman2008 - 2018ElectedRepublican
Justice David T. Prosser1998 - 2021Gov. Tommy ThompsonRepublican

Chief justice

The justice with the longest continuous service on the court serves as the chief justice, unless that justice declines, in which case the role passes to the next senior justice of the court. Shirley Abrahamson is the current Chief Justice.

Chief justice selection amendment

A measure in the Wisconsin State Legislature would change the method of selecting the court's chief justice, requiring justices to elect one of their peers to the position. This measure was approved by the state Senate on November 12, 2013. In order for the amendment to get on the ballot for voter approval, it must be approved by a majority of both chambers of the state Legislature in two separate sessions. (See: Ballotpedia's "Amending state constitutions"). Thus, the earliest a statewide vote could take place would be in 2015.[1]


The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over original actions, appeals from lower courts, and regulation or administration of the practice of law in Wisconsin. Most commonly, the Supreme Court reviews cases that were appealed from the Court of Appeals. The Court receives roughly 800 to 1,000 petitions for Court of Appeals review a year; 20-30 petitions for bypass, and a similar number of certifications. The court accepts about 100 petitions for review, very few of the petitions for bypass, and a small number of the approximately 10 petitions for original action received each year.[2]

Judicial selection

The court is composed of seven justices who are elected to ten-year terms in state-wide, non-partisan elections. Only one justice may be elected in any year. In the event of a vacancy on the court, the governor has the power to appoint an individual to the vacancy, but that justice must then stand for election in the first year where no other justice's term expires.


Per Article VII, Section 24 of the Wisconsin Constitution, to qualify for a judgeship in Wisconsin a person must be:

  • Licensed to practice law in Wisconsin for a minimum of five years
  • Under the age of 70

For the ballot access checklist to become a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, click here. For the campaign finance checklist to become a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, click here.

Political outlook

See also: Political outlook of State Supreme Court Justices

In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan outlook of state supreme court justices in their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 were more liberal. The state Supreme Court of Wisconsin was given a Campaign finance score (CFscore) which was calculated for judges in October 2012. At that time, Wisconsin received a score of 0.42. Based on the justices selected, Wisconsin was the 11th most conservative court. The study is based on data from campaign contributions by judges themselves, the partisan leaning of contributors to the judges or, in the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature). This study is not a definitive label of a justice but rather, an academic gauge of various factors.[3]


Fiscal Year Filings Dispositions
2012 784 824
2011 809 681
2010 717 762
2009 777 740
2008 824 812
2007 810 826


Notable decisions

Template:Notable case format state judges

Collective bargaining

In March 2011, Judge Maryann Sumi declared an injunction against publishing the Wisconsin Legislature's bill that eliminates collective bargaining for public employees. She found that legislators broke the state's Open Meetings Law, and therefore granted a restraining order against the Secretary of State's publishing of the bill.[5]

On May 26, 2011, Sumi struck down the legislative actions leading to the bill eliminating public employee collective bargaining on the grounds that it violated the state's Open Meetings Law.[6][7]

Read the text of Sumi's ruling here: State of Wisconsin vs. Fitzgerald et al

The state Departments of Justice and Department of Administration appealed the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. On June 14, 2011 the Supreme Court overturned Sumi's ruling, saying in part that it had "usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the Legislature."[8]

Read the text of the Supreme Court's ruling here: State of Wisconsin vs. Fitzgerald et al (June 14, 2011)

Historic cases

20th Century

Risser v. Klauser (1997) This case is one of a number of cases focusing on the governor’s veto power that have come to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The case began and ended in the state’s high Court, with the Court taking original action rather than sitting as an appellate court. Its 4-3 decision served to further define the veto power of the governor and the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.[9]

Libertarian Party of Wisconsin v. Thompson (1996) This case began and ended in the Wisconsin Supreme Court; the Court took original action rather than sitting (as it normally does) as an appellate court. The case illustrates the restrictions the state Constitution places on private laws and laws contracting public debt. While the Court has shot down taxes collected for a specific purpose in other cases, it found here that Wisconsin Act 56, which created a tax in five counties to raise money for a new Milwaukee Brewers stadium, served a legitimate public purpose by encouraging economic development and tourism and reducing unemployment.[10]

Thompson v. Benson (1996) This case illustrates the restrictions the Wisconsin Constitution places on legislative enactments and the checks and balances that exist in a three-branch system of government. Here, the Wisconsin Supreme Court stopped an attempt to take powers away from the elected state superintendent of schools and give them to gubernatorial appointees.[11]

State v. Mitchell (1992) This case illustrates legislative action against bigotry and the possible conflict between such laws and the free speech guarantees of the federal and state constitutions. Here, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, on a 5-2 vote, found unconstitutional a state law which enhanced the penalty for a crime if the victim was selected on the basis of characteristics such as race or sexual orientation. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision.[12]

State v. Stevens (1985) In the 1980s and 1990s many cases have come to the courts challenging the validity of a search or seizure under the federal and state constitutions. This is one such case. In this case, a divided Wisconsin Supreme Court determined that police may seize and search a person’s garbage without a warrant.[13]

State v. Yoder (1971) In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court weighed the state’s interest in educating children against the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. The Court held that a state law requiring children to attend school full time was unconstitutional because it infringed on the freedom of the Amish to practice their religion. In reaching this decision, the Court distinguished itself from courts around the country that had upheld compulsory education. The case was appealed to (and affirmed by) the U.S. Supreme Court.[14]

State ex rel. Drankovich v. Murphy (1945) In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court strengthened the right to legal counsel for defendants in criminal matters, determining that trial judges must make these individuals aware of this right and that a lawyer must be provided at public expense, when necessary, even if the defendant does not request counsel.[15]

John F. Jelke Company v. Emery (1927) This case centers on a quirky Wisconsin law that made it a crime to manufacture or sell margarine in the state. The Legislature had enacted the law in 1925 to aid the dairy industry. An unanimous Court found that the Legislature had no power to attempt to regulate competition to give one industry an advantage over another.[16]

Wait v. Pierce (1926) This case marks an important step forward for women in Wisconsin. In a 4-3 ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted women the right to sue their husbands. In so doing, the Court broadly interpreted a 1921 law which gave women the right to vote, finding that the law granted women a number of additional rights.[17]

Borgnis and others v. The Falk Company (1911) In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously upheld a law creating workers’ compensation and strengthened the rights of employees by finding that the law covered even individuals employed in "non-hazardous" trades.[18]

Nunnemacher v. State (1906) In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a tax on inheritance, one of the key laws of the Progressives. In issuing this opinion, the Court departed from a course charted by many courts around the nation which had found a natural right to inherit and had determined that legislatures could not interfere with this right by levying a tax.[19]

19th Century

The State ex rel. Attorney General v. Cunningham and The State ex rel. Lamb v. Cunningham (1892) These cases demonstrate the power struggle, which is designed into a democratic system, among the three branches of government. The Wisconsin Supreme Court outlawed gerrymandering; that is, drawing creative legislative districts to preserve partisan political advantage.[20]

State ex rel. Weiss and others vs. District Board, etc. (1890) In this case, popularly known as the Edgerton Bible case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court determined that Bible reading in public schools is unconstitutional. Until this point, the King James Bible had been recommended as a textbook by the state superintendent of schools.[21]

Brown v. Phillips and others (1888) In this case, in a unanimous opinion, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to expand women’s suffrage. In doing so, the Court narrowly interpreted a state statute which gave women the right to vote only on school-related matters. In the opinion, the Court emphasized that the power to grant suffrage belonged to the Legislature.[22]

Motion to admit Miss Lavinia Goodell to the Bar of this Court and Application of Miss Goodell (1875) & (1879) These cases stand as a testament to the obstacles women faced in the 19th century as they attempted to work in traditionally male professions. Lavinia Goodell was a Janesville attorney and the first woman to apply for admission to the bar of the Wisconsin Supreme Court (at that time, practice before the state’s high Court required admission to a separate bar). In the first case, her application was denied; in the second, following a legislative act that prohibited denial of bar admissions based on gender, she was admitted.[23]

Attorney General v. Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Company (1874) This case, popularly referred to as Attorney General v. Railroad, marked the beginning in this state of the struggle between corporate interests and the rights of the individual citizen. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in this case decided that the state did, indeed, have the authority to regulate railroads. This curtailed the railroads’ ability to arbitrarily set rates for freight and passenger fares in each community. Up to this point, the railroads had been able to set very low or very high rates if they chose—which could make or break a community.[24]

Whiting v. Sheboygan & Fond du Lac Railroad Company (1870) Whiting established the important principle that the government may not impose a tax on its citizens for a private purpose. In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that Fond du Lac County could not levy a tax on county residents to raise funds for the completion of a railroad.[25]

Gillespie v. Palmer and others (1866) The decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Gillespie extended the right to vote to black residents of the state. The question had been put on a referendum, which had passed, but election inspectors attempted to keep black people from voting by arguing that the vote had been misconstrued. A unanimous Court held that the vote was valid.[26]

In re Kemp (1863) This Civil War-era case provides another example of the state Supreme Court taking on the federal government. In this case, the Court ruled that President Abraham Lincoln could not suspend the writ of habeas corpus for civilians when marshal law was not in effect. Military troops had seized Kemp and imprisoned him after he helped to stage a draft riot.[27]

Chamberlain v. Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad (1860) This case represents an early effort on the part of the courts to give rights to injured workers. In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court determined that an employer can be held responsible when negligence on the part of one employee injures another employee.[28]

Attorney General ex rel. Bashford v. Barstow (1856) The Wisconsin Supreme Court removed an incumbent governor from office after it was discovered that his victory was the result of fraud. This case helped to create the tradition of independence and honesty that has marked Wisconsin politics and law ever since. Further, the case established the independence of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the important principle that the Court has the power to interpret the state Constitution.[29]

In Re: Booth (1854) What has come to be known as the Booth case is actually a series of cases from the Wisconsin Supreme Court and one from the U.S. Supreme Court. In the midst of the pre-Civil War states’ rights movement, the Wisconsin Supreme Court boldly defied federal judicial authority and nullified the federal fugitive slave law (which required northern states to return runaway slaves). The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state Supreme Court which, in a final act of defiance, never filed the mandates.[30]

Menasha Corporation

A ruling by the court in favor of Menasha Corp could worsen the state's budget woes. The ruling involved the collection of sales tax on computer software purchased by Menasha Corp.

State law exempts custom software from sales and use tax, but the Wisconsin Department of Revenue claimed that the software purchased by the company was not custom software even though Menasha paid $17 million to customize it. The Wisconsin Tax Appeals Commission initially ruled in favor of the company, but the state then appealed that decision to the Dane County Circuit Court where Judge Steven Ebert overturned the appeals commission ruling.

According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau the ruling could mean that the state would lose $300 million in sales tax refunds to companies which had already paid similar claims and in diminished sales tax collections.[31]

Access to government records

  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel v. Department of Administration. In this pending appeal, the court has been asked to overturn a lower court ruling that says that a collective bargaining agreement between a union and a state agency can forbid the agency from releasing names of public employees.
  • WIREdata, Inc. v. Village of Sussex. In this June 2008 decision, the court ruled that three Wisconsin municipalities did not violate the Wisconsin Open Records Law when they failed to give a real estate listing service access to property assessment records in a computer database. The decision ran to 1,143 pages.
  • Hempel v. City of Baraboo. In this 2005 decision, the court upheld a lower court order denying a records request made under the Wisconsin Open Records Law by Hal Hempel, a police officer of the Baraboo police department. Hempel sought records of an internal investigation conducted about allegations against him to the effect that he had harassed female officers in the department. The case centered on two key components of the Wisconsin Open Records law: Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(a) and Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(am) - and the statutory exceptions therein. Abrahamson dissented from the majority, and was joined by Bradley and Butler.


Financial disclosure

See also: Center for Public Integrity Study on State Supreme Court Disclosure Requirements

In December 2013, the Center for Public Integrity released a study on disclosure requirements for state supreme court judges. Analysts from the Center reviewed the rules governing financial disclosure in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as personal financial disclosures for the past three years. The study found that 42 states and Washington D.C. received failing grades. Wisconsin earned a grade of F in the study. No state received a grade higher than "C". Furthermore, due in part to these lax disclosure standards, the study found 35 instances of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads and similar potential ethical quandaries. The study also noted 14 cases in which justices participated although they or their spouses held stock in the company involved in the litigation.[32]

History of the court

The Wisconsin state capitol in Madison, which houses the Wisconsin Supreme Court

Former justices

Notable firsts

  • Lavinia Goodell was a Janesville attorney and the first woman to apply for admission to the bar of the Wisconsin Supreme Court (at that time, practice before the state’s high Court required admission to a separate bar). In the first case, her application was denied; in the second, following a legislative act that prohibited denial of bar admissions based on gender, she was admitted.[34]
  • Shirley Abrahamson was the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and, subsequently the first female Chief Justice.

Public funding

Increased funding proposed

Under a 2008 bill passed by the Democratically held Wisconsin Senate, Supreme Court candidates would qualify for $100,000 each in publicly financed campaign contributions (assuming they raised between $5,000 and $10,000 on their own), for Supreme Court primary races; primary contestants would be granted $300,000. Currently, Supreme Court candidates can get up to $97,000 in public campaign grants. Stipulations are made on private individuals, as well. Under the proposed legislation, individuals and committees would be allowed to contribute a maximum of $1,000 to a Supreme Court justice annually. Currently, individuals can donate up to $10,000 annually, and committees up to $8,625. Impetus for the measure comes on the heals of a highly contested and costly Supreme Court election in 2007 between now-justice Annette K. Ziegler and Linda Clifford. Combined, the two spent nearly $6 million; according to a February 2008 AP report, nearly half of that was from "outside groups."

Proponents for the measure suggest the bill would dissuade would-be and incumbent justices from being influenced by private-interest dollars when ruling on important court cases. In December 2007, the Supreme Court justices sent a letter to lawmakers and Governor Jim Doyle saying they support the legislation. Senator Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls) is the bill's main author. The Senate passed the measure, 21-10, without much debate. It now goes to the Republican-held State Assembly, where Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) does not favor using tax dollars to finance public campaigns.[35]

Published study

The idea of public funding for court races goes back to at least 2000. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a study sponsored by the non-partisan group Wisconsin Citizen Action found that nearly 75% of the high court's cases during the past 10 years involved at least one campaign contributor, although there was no connection found between donations and court decisions.[36] Carolyn Castore of Wisconsin Citizen Action applauded the move towards public-funded elections, saying, "In an effort to clean up the way Supreme Court races are funded, the committee has taken a giant step towards ensuring the impartiality and independence of the Wisconsin Supreme Court."[37]

Court functions

WI Supreme Court room.png

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has three primary functions: deciding cases, administering the operation of the judicial branch, and regulatory responsibilities.

Case decision

The primary function of the Supreme Court is to ensure independent, open, fair and efficient resolution of disputes in accordance with the federal and state constitutions and laws. Cases come to the Supreme Court via:

  • A party who has lost a case in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals may file a petition for review;
  • Any party may ask the Supreme Court to bypass the Court of Appeals and take a case;
  • The Court of Appeals may ask the Supreme Court to take a case by certification; or
  • A party may begin a case of statewide significance in the Supreme Court (original actions).

When the Court agrees to decide a case, it receives briefs from all sides and schedules oral argument. The Court publishes its decision in virtually every case it agrees to decide.[38]


The Supreme Court also administers the entire Wisconsin Court System. The Court's administrative duties include the following:[39]

  • Budgeting
  • Long-range planning
  • Information technology
  • Rules of pleading and practice
  • Security and facilities management
  • Juror use and management
  • Court-connected alternative dispute resolution


The Court-established Board of Bar Examiners (BBE) oversees bar admissions and monitors lawyers' compliance with Wisconsin's continuing legal education requirements. The Court also sets Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys and has established the Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR), which investigates and prosecutes grievances involving attorney misconduct or medical incapacity.

Through the Office of Judicial Education, the Court administers the requirement that judges attend educational programs. The state Constitution also gives the Court authority to discipline judges according to procedures established by the Legislature.

The Court-adopted Code of Judicial Conduct governs judges' conduct. The Court appointed a Judicial Conduct Advisory Committee to give informal advice to judges and render formal advisory opinions on whether a contemplated action would be appropriate. The Court has also appointed a Commission on Judicial Elections and Ethics to propose rules concerning the political and campaign activities of judges and candidates for judicial office.[40]

External links


  1. Connecticut Post, "Wisconsin Senate passes chief justice amendment," November 12, 2013
  2. Wisconsin Blue Book, p.143
  3. Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
  4. ‘’Wisconsin Court System’’, “Publications, reports and addresses: Annual reports”
  5. The Daily Cardinal, "DOA will enforce union law despite injunction," March 31, 2011
  6. Wisconsin State Journal, "Judge strikes down Walker's collective bargaining law, case moves to state Supreme Court," May 26, 2011
  7. Wisconsin Reporter, "Judge: Collective bargaining bill violated open meetings law," May 26, 2011
  8. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Supreme Court reinstates collective bargaining law," June 14, 2011
  9. Famous Case #23
  10. Famous Case #22
  11. Famous Case #21
  12. Famous Case #20
  13. Famous Case #19
  14. Famous Case #18
  15. Famous Case #17
  16. Famous Case #16
  17. Famous Case #15
  18. Famous Case #14
  19. Famous Case #13
  20. Famous Case #12
  21. Famous Case #11
  22. Famous Case #10
  23. Famous Case #8
  24. Famous Case #7
  25. Famous Case #5
  26. Famous Case #6
  27. Famous Case #4
  28. Famous Case #3
  29. Famous Case #2
  30. Famous Case #1
  31. State Supreme Court decision punches another hole in state budget
  32. Center for Public Integrity, "State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information," December 5, 2013
  33. List of Justices from the Wisconsin Supreme Court
  34. Famous Case #8
  35. Senate approves more public financing for Supreme Court races
  36. [Personal Wealth Fueled Campaigns, Study Says Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 15, 2001]
  37. [Court Hopefuls May Get Funds, (Madison, WI) Capital Times, July 20, 2001]
  38. Supreme Court Functions
  39. Supreme Court Functions
  40. Supreme Court Functions

Portions of this article have been taken from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Copyright Notice can be found here.


See also: Wisconsin judicial elections, 2013
CandidateIncumbencyPositionPrimary VoteElection Vote
FalloneEd Fallone No29.8%ApprovedA42.47%   DefeatedD
RoggensackPatience RoggensackApprovedAYes63.9%ApprovedA57.48%   ApprovedA
MegnaVince Megna No6.3% 


See also: Wisconsin judicial elections, 2011
The following is a list of candidates for the Supreme Court 2011 election:
CandidateIncumbencyPositionPrimary VoteElection Vote
ProsserDavid T. Prosser   ApprovedAYesExpression error: Unexpected > operator.50.192%   ApprovedA
StephensMarla J. Stephens    NoExpression error: Unexpected > operator. 
KloppenburgJoAnne Kloppenburg    NoDistrict IVExpression error: Unexpected > operator.49.70%   DefeatedD
WinnigJoel Winnig    NoExpression error: Unexpected > operator. 


See also: State Supreme Court elections, 2008

Incumbent Louis Butler was defeated by challenger Michael Gableman.

Wisconsin Supreme Court
2008 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Louis Butler n/a n/a
Michael Gableman BallotCheckMark.png n/a n/a

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