Supreme Court Justices Spar During Public Meeting

Roggensack Presides As Chief Justice For First Time At Rules Conference

Gilman Halsted/WPR

The private sparring among Wisconsin Supreme Court justices spilled over into the public eye Wednesday during an open meeting to discuss court rules.

Patience Roggensack was presiding over the Supreme Court rules conference as chief justice for the first time Wednesday. She sat at the head of the conference table in the Supreme Court chambers, leading the meeting with five of the six other justices present. Abrahamson sat to Roggensack’s right.

About halfway through the otherwise polite and peaceful conference, Roggensack chided the former chief for trying to continue debate on an issue that had already been voted on.

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“You are out of order. I never did this to you when you operated as chief justice, to keep going back when we tried to move to an item on the agenda. You really need to give me the same courtesy.”

That prompted Abrahamson to shoot back: “But I never silenced anyone.” She added she expected the same courtesy from Roggensack.

Said Roggensack: “Well, I run the meeting a little differently perhaps than you do.”

Roggensack was elected chief by four of the seven justices on April 29. The following day, Abrahamson sued in federal court seeking to retain her leadership of the court until her term ends in 2019. The suit is still pending.

Roggensack’s election came after voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing justices to elect their own chief. Opponents of the amendment say it was specifically designed to unseat Abrahamson, who has served as chief since 1996 under a provision that automatically made the most senior justice on the court the chief. Abrahamson leads the minority liberal wing of the court, while Roggensack is widely seen as the leader of the conservative 4 justice majority .

A few sparks also flew on Wednesday between Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and Roggensack after the meeting was adjourned, when Bradley accused the new chief of scheduling an unauthorized closed meeting for later in the day. Roggensack said she had no interest in arguing either publicly or privately about the issue and left the chambers while Bradley continued to press her point.

Bradley has sided with Abrahamson in the former chief’s lawsuit stating in court documents that Roggensack’s election should have waited until the lawsuit was settled.

As the court adjusts to the new leadership regime, some justices, including the new chief, found themselves inadvertently addressing Abrahamson with her former title of “chief.”

The court is wrapping its term for the year and is not expected to hold any more public meetings as the justices write opinions for cases argued earlier in the year.