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Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson dies

Published: Dec. 20, 2020 at 1:57 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Shirley Abrahamson, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice, has died. Abrahamson was the first woman on the state supreme court, and the first woman to serve as chief justice.

Justice Abrahamson was a woman of many firsts, breaking barriers and marking history.

“Quite a force to contend with strong intellect, and yet at the same time a very compassionate and understanding person,”Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, Wisconsin Supreme Court said.

Abrahamson was first appointed to the court in 1976 and served as Chief Justice from 1996 until 2015. She stepped down in 2019 after learning she had cancer and was succeeded on the bench by Justice Brian Hagedorn.

Justice Bradley worked with her for 24 years on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.

“Side by side. We were very dear friends,” Justice Bradley said.

Justice Abrahamson was known for a strong worth ethic. She wrote more than 450 majority opinions and participated in over 3500 written decisions while she served.

“Gov. Evers tells the story. He and his wife would live downtown Madison and walk around the state capitol. They’d look up and see Shirley’s lights were still on at the wee hours of the night,” she said.

Justice Bradley said after busy days at work, Abrahamson would use her free time to help others.

“Surely spent a lot of time talking with young women and young men talking about their future plans. She really was a mentor to so many people,” Bradley said.

Abrahamson helped rewrite the city’s equal opportunities law in 1963. 30 years later, former President Bill Clinton considered putting her on the U.S. Supreme court. She was later profiled in the book, “Great American Judges: an encyclopedia.”

Justice Bradley said Abrahamson used her voice to inspire others and her legacy will last a lifetime.

“She was a dear friend, and I’ll miss her. As will, many people around the state,” Bradley said.

Governor Tony Evers released a statement today on her passing.

“Her legacy is defined not just by being a first, but her life’s work of ensuring she would not be the last, paving and lighting the way for the many women and others who would come after her,” Evers wrote. “We are thinking of Chief Justice Abrahamson’s family and friends, and we join the people of Wisconsin in mourning the loss of one of our state’s most extraordinary public servants and honoring her legacy.”

In 2019, Madison’s Common Council declared June 18th ‘Justice Shirley Abrahamson Day’ in Madison.

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin released a statement saying Abrahamson broke barriers and was an independent, fair and impartial justice.

“She spent a lot of her time traveling the state, meeting with people - whether it was meeting with local judges, riding along with local law enforcement, or meeting with advocates for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence – she always understood that you can’t serve the people if you don’t walk in their shoes,” Baldwin said. “She was a true public servant who lived up to Wisconsin’s work ethic with all her hard work doing so much for our state.”

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