Dec. 21, 2020 – Shirley Abrahamson, who served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court for 43 years before her retirement last year, passed away this past weekend after battling pancreatic cancer. She was 87.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson,” said State Bar of Wisconsin Executive Director Larry J. Martin. "She was a monumental figure in Wisconsin’s judiciary during her record 43 year career, including 19 years as chief justice."
“Justice Abrahamson was a great jurist, an incredible legal mind and a wonderful human being. She was a trailblazer and inspiration for many people seeking careers in the legal profession and leaves a lasting legacy and many friends,” said State Bar President Kathy Brost.
The first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Justice Abrahamson was a trailblazer for women in the legal profession and a nationally recognized jurist. She was first appointed to the state supreme court bench in 1976 by Gov. Patrick Lucey.
She was elected to her first 10-year term in 1979, at age 42, and was elected to 10 year terms again in 1989, 1999, and 2009. She retired in June 2019 after serving out her final 10-year term. She had previously announced a cancer diagnosis in 2018.
"During her four decades on the Court, Justice Abrahamson made numerous contributions, both in terms of the law and the administration of the court system,” said current Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.
“She was well-read, well-traveled, and she brought a lifetime of interesting experiences with her as she served on the bench. The court system and the people of Wisconsin continue to benefit from her work and will do so for years to come.”
Abrahamson, considered liberal in her judicial approach, became chief justice in 1996 and served as chief for nearly 20 years. She is the longest serving justice in state history. In a 2019 Wisconsin Lawyer article on her retirement and judicial career, colleagues noted Abrahamson’s astute legal mind, and her inspiring service.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson greets the crowd at a celebration in her honor at the Wisconsin State Capitol on June 18, 2019. (Photo: Andy Manis).
“The number of women who can say they went to law school because of her, I think, is a significant number,” said fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.
“Justice Abrahamson is a brilliant legal thinker, a powerful writer, and trailblazer in the law,” said Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Sykes served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court from 1999 to 2004.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away earlier this year, also highlighted Justice Abrahamson’s legal achievements.
“Among jurists, Shirley Abrahamson ranks with the very best, the brightest and most caring, the least self-regarding,” said Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. “She never forgets that law exists to serve all the people composing society, not just those in privileged positions.”
Abrahamson, in addition to an astute legal mind, used the chief justice position to improve the Wisconsin court system on the administrative side. She also led programs to make the court system more accessible to the public.
For instance, Abrahamson started the Court with Class program, which brings in high school students statewide to witness the supreme court’s oral arguments and learn more about the justice system in action. Thousands of students have participated.
“Administration, besides a brilliant legal mind in terms of the law, has really marked her tenure on the court,” said Justice A.W. Bradley.
A native of New York City, Abrahamson’s parents were first-generation Jewish immigrants from Poland. She was born in the 1930s and grew up in Manhattan. Her father owned a neighborhood store, and the family worked there.
Justice Abrahamson attended New York University and the Indiana University School of Law. She was the only woman in her graduating class, and finished first.
She and her husband, Seymour – who passed away in 2016 – moved to Madison in 1956 for Seymour’s post-doctoral fellowship in zoology. Abrahamson obtained an S.J.D. in American legal history and joined the faculty at U.W. Law School.
Gordon Sinykin and James E. Doyle of LaFollette & Sinykin also hired Abrahamson as the firm’s first woman attorney. She became a named partner and practiced law for 14 years before Gov. Lucey tapped her for the state supreme court, in 1976.
She was well-known as one of the hardest working justices on the bench. "When I got on the court, we both worked late hours, sometimes until midnight or 1 a.m.,” said Justice A.W. Bradley in 2019. “The difference is, Shirley did it every night.”
In the 1990s, Abrahamson became one of the country’s preeminent judicial scholars in the area of state constitutionalism. An entire issue of the Albany Law Review, in 2004, was dedicated to her prolific scholarly writing.
“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,” noted Justice A.W. Bradley.
Abrahamson’s judicial legacy will live in Wisconsin legal history and more than 500 majority opinions, nearly 500 dissents, and more than 300 concurring opinions.
Last year, visitors packed the State Capitol Building to pay tribute to Justice Abrahamson’s career.
"I can think of no better way to honor the historic contributions women have made to our state, including the legacy of the first woman appointed to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a ceremony, naming the Wisconsin Historical Society Reading Room after her.
“As a lawyer, a professor of law, and member of our Supreme Court, Justice Abrahamson has served our state and our country with honor and distinction."
Read more about Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s career in Wisconsin Lawyer.