Lawmaker: Chief justice’s civil rights complaint is ‘pathetic’

M.D. Kittle
Posted: Apr 13, 2015 2:47 PM
Lawmaker: Chief justice’s civil rights complaint is ‘pathetic’
Part 191 of 191 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Watchdog

MADISON, Wis. – “Pathetic.”

That’s how state Rep. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon, describes a civil rights lawsuit that Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson filed to preserve her leadership position, extra pay and her power on the state’s highest court.

Abrahamson, who has served as the high court’s chief justice for nearly 20 years, filed her civil rights complaint in federal court less than 24 hours after voters on April 7 passed a constitutional amendment that gives the Supreme Court the right to select its chief justice. The amendment ends the state’s 126-year tradition of deciding the leadership post based solely on seniority.

“I think ‘pathetic’ would be the word that I would use,” Craig said Saturday in an interview with Wisconsin Watchdog before speaking on a panel at the Conservative Action Conference in Oconomowoc. The topic of the conference was Wisconsin’s politically charged John Doe investigation.

NO COMPARISON: State Rep. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon, says there is no comparison between Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s civil rights lawsuit to keep her leadership post and the civil rights complaints raised by conservatives targeted in a politically motivated investigation.

Craig compared Abrahamson’s complaint that the amendment violates her civil rights to what he asserts are real civil rights abuses in a Democrat-launched John Doe secret probe of conservative activists.

The state Supreme Court is considering whether the John Doe investigation violated the constitutional rights of the activists.

“When there are actual concerns before her court of actual harm to individuals’ civil liberties – the targets (and) their families dragged through the mud, having to spend tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend their good names without ever having been charged with a crime. And (Abrahamson) has the temerity to bring that type of case on the heels of the people of Wisconsin voting overwhelmingly (on the Supreme Court leadership referendum) is incredible to me and pathetic,” Craig said.

In her court filing in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, Abrahamson claims she is losing her right to serve out her 10-year term as chief justice, and that the state constitutional amendment violates her constitutional rights of due process and equal protection. Abrahamson, a part of the court’s liberal minority, also doesn’t want to lose the additional $8,000 in salary that comes with the leadership post, which pays $155,403 per year.

Abrahamson’s lawsuit names her fellow justices as defendants. Court observers say that indicates she doesn’t believe she would survive a vote of her peers to continue in the chief’s post.

“We filed this lawsuit to obtain a fair and neutral judgment (on) the meaning of the constitutional amendment with respect to Chief Justice Abrahamson’s term of office and the constitutional rights implicated by it on behalf of both the Chief Justice and the voters who supported her 2009 reelection,” Robert S. Peck, Abrahamson’s attorney told Wisconsin Watchdog in an email last week.

But the ballot initiative’s backers say it’s the majority of voters, who approved the referendum 53 percent to 47 percent, who would have their decision abridged if Abrahamson gets her way.

At the same time, the Supreme Court is considering a consolidated case testing the constitutionality of the John Doe probe into dozens of conservative organizations and the campaign of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Some of the targets of that investigation have filed a civil rights lawsuit against the prosecutors of that investigation alleging that their constitutional rights have been trampled on.

The chief justice’s critics say they’re stunned by the contrast – between what they see as Abrahamson’s legal effort to hold on to power and the victims of the John Doe probe. They note that the John Doe’s targets have seen their First Amendment rights of political speech and association frozen in recent years in an investigation that has been repudiated by multiple courts.

Court documents show Abrahamson was instrumental in setting in motion the expanded, five-county John Doe probe that led to the raids and property seizures in October 2013. The John Doe included predawn, paramilitary-style raids on the homes of conservative activists, and a gag order prohibiting targets from publicly disclosing they are being investigated.

Abrahamson also recently voted to allow John Doe prosecutors to make public much of the information from their investigation. But the court majority said they haven’t yet determined whether the investigation was legal.