The Wisconsin Supreme Court is the highest appellate court in the state. It hears criminal and civil cases as the court of last resort. This part of the judicial system has a long and storied history that goes back more than a century, to the time Wisconsin was officially declared a state. If you’re a law student or a civic-minded resident of Wisconsin, you may find the story of the highest court in the land interesting. Here are twenty things you probably didn’t know about the Wisconsin Supreme Court to enhance your knowledge base.
1. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is over a century old
According to Wikipedia, the Supreme Court for the State of Wisconsin has been in existence since 1848. As of 2022, the court will celebrate its 174th birthday. The Court convenes with Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.
2. The Court is occasionally mobile
The Wisconsin Supreme Court usually meets at the Wisconsin State Capital building in the East Wing to hear cases. In 1993, the court developed a program they call “Justice on Wheels.” All members of the court travel to another part of the state once or twice a year, to hear various court cases. It’s an educational program that moves the justices out of their regular chambers to give people living in other parts of the state the opportunity to attend the hearings and learn more about how the court operates. The program is a form of public service.
3. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has 7 members
The panel for the supreme court in the state of Wisconsin is comprised of seven justices. Ann Walsh Bradley is an associate justice since August 1, 1995, and is up for re-election in 2025. Patience D. Roggensack served on the panel since August 2, 2003, and is up for re-election in 2023. Rebecca Bradley was appointed by the governor on October 12, 2015, and is up for election in 2026. Rebecca Dallet was elected on August 1, 2018, and is up for re-election in 2028. Brian Hagedorn was elected August 1, 2019, and is up for re-election in 2029. Jill Karofsky was elected on August 1, 2020, and is up for re-election in 2030.
4. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has a unique election process
The seven justices are elected through non-partisan elections statewide. While other states conduct similar elections, Wisconsin has a system that allows just one justice elected in any year. Some state-level supreme courts have had up to four judges elected in a year. Each Wisconsin justice serves a term of ten years. The chief justice is elected by a group of peers and serves a 2-year term.
5. The Wisconsin Supreme Court maintains continuity
The supreme court for Wisconsin does an exceptional job of maintaining continuity in its proceedings. Its decision to only allow one election per year is its method for avoiding sudden shifts in jurisprudence by introducing too many new justices with varying points of view. The justices deal with controversial issues of great weight. The court seeks to avoid radical shifts in its composition from one year to another.
6. Appointed justices must wait their term for election
The governor of Wisconsin can appoint a justice if a seat is vacant. An appointed judge must serve the vacancy’s term. They must wait in line to run for the seat upon term expiration. The first year that there is no other justice with an expiring term is the year the newly appointed judge must run for election. The process is regardless of the number of years left in the term. Some appointees may serve only one year before the necessity for running in an election is enacted, according to Ballotpedia.
7. A confrontation took place in 2011
Two justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court had a confrontation on June 13, 2011. Ann Walsh Bradley and David Prosser Jr. met in Bradley’s chambers. Prosser claimed no confidence in Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s leadership. The two disagreed over a ruling blocking collective bargaining law for the state of Wisconsin. Bradley claimed that Prosser put her in a chokehold and Prosser denied the incident. The Dane County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident. Neither party was charged in the matter, as witnesses could not agree on what happened.
8. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has reviewed famous cases from before the Civil War
According to the Wisconsin Courts website, the U.S Supreme court became broiled in a case dealing with pre-Civil War states’ rights. The Wisconsin Supreme Court went against the federal judicial authority. The state supreme court displayed a deliberate act of defiance. It ruled that the federal fugitive slave law was null in Wisconsin. The federal courts mandated all northern states to return runaway slaves to the South. Wisconsin was of another mind and refused to supply. The U.S. Supreme court acted against the Wisconsin Supreme Court to overturn its decision, however, the mandates were never filed by Wisconsin as an additional act of defiance. The incident is known as the Booth Case of 1854.
9. The Wisconsin Supreme Court removed a governor
In 1856, the Wisconsin Supreme Court marked its independence from Wisconsin politics to establish a tradition of honesty. The court assumed its power to interpret the Constitution of the State and took bold action. An incumbent governor had won an election through acts that constituted fraud by definition. The Supreme Court removed the incumbent governor from office, flexing its muscle and proving its independence from politics in the Attorney General ex rel. Bashford v Barstow case.
10. The Wisconsin Supreme Court did not bow down to the federal government
In 1863, the Kemp case heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court was yet another famous Civil-War era case. Kemp is a man seized by military troops for helping stage a draft riot. The justices ruled that the president of the United States could not suspend the right to due process for civilians unless marshal law existed. The Wisconsin Supreme Court once again challenged the federal government and fought back with the law on its side.
11. The Wisconsin Supreme Court supported worker’s rights in the 1860s
The Wisconsin Supreme Court reviewed the Chamberlain v Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad case of 1860. The case set precedence for the rights of injured workers. The justices ruled that employers could be liable for injuries to workers if an employee of the company injured another worker due to negligence. The case was a legal action that favored workers and ensured their rights to compensation for injuries sustained on the job.
12. The Wisconsin Supreme Court protected citizens from unlawful taxes
The Whiting v Sheboygan & fond du Lac Railroad Company case of 1870 was a landmark case involving the government’s use of taxation. Fond du Lac Country attempted to levy a tax on residents of the country to fundraise to complete a railroad. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin ruled that government may not impose such tax on its citizens for a private purpose. The case set a precedent for the limits under which county governments could impose taxes on the citizens.
13. The Wisconsin Supreme Court was among the first to extend voting rights to black residents
In 1866 the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard the case of Gillespie v Palmer and others. This hearing was another landmark case that heard arguments about a referendum extending the right to vote to people of black ancestry within the state of Wisconsin. The referendum passed by popular vote, however, election inspectors tried to prevent black people from exercising their right to vote by arguing that it was invalid. The Wisconsin Supreme Court justices pondered the matter, deliberated, and agreed unanimously that the vote was valid and black residents of the state of Wisconsin had the right to vote.
14. The supreme court of Wisconsin protected the rights of individual citizens from corporate power and privilege
The Attorney General v Chicago & Northwestern Railroad company is a case heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1874. The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Company set rates for freight and passenger fares arbitrarily in each community. The railroads had to power to set their rates very low or very high. The power could make or break a community until the state supreme court ruled that the state had the authority to regulate railroads, preventing their ability to continue an unfair rate-setting system for freight and passenger services.
15. The Wisconsin Supreme Court supported women’s right to admission to the bar in 1879
The Motion to admit Miss Lavinia Goodell to the bar of this court and Application of Miss Goodell got forwarded to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin in 1879. This case was monumental. It involved a woman from Janesville who struggled to establish her career in an environment dominated by males. The attorney applied for admission to the bar of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Her first application was denied. She filed a second case after legislation was enacted to prohibit the denial of bar admission based on gender. She gained admission in the case that moved toward establishing equal rights for women in the workplace. It was a start toward eliminating the many obstacles faced by women during the 19th century.
16. Wisconsin protected the right to freedom from in 1890
A pivotal case was heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court involving religious freedom in 1890. The State ex rel. Weiss and others vs. District Board, etc., was a case that challenged the reading of the Bible in public schools. The state superintendent of schools for Wisconsin recommended the King James Version of the Bible as a textbook. The Edgerton Bible Case was heard by the justices, asserting that it is unconstitutional to read the Bible in public schools. The court ruled that Bible reading in public schools is unconstitutional. This was a bold move that protected the rights of those who were not inclined to believe in a certain faith. It was the support of freedom from religion and the support of free thought. It was a forerunner of the separation of church and state.
17. The Wisconsin Supreme Court often heard frivolous cases in its early years
Although the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard cases that set powerful precedents that protected the rights of the citizens in the pursuit of freedom and happiness, not all of the cases heard by the courts in the early years were significant. Many of them involved civil matters that are trivial in comparison to the more famous cases. An example of the typical humdrum case heard in the late 1800s is the Vassau v Thompson appeal. the case was heard by the court in 1879. A question of liability was determined when the dog of a citizen bit a cow. Many of the cases heard involved such matters which would now be reviewed in the lower courts systems.
18. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin made it legal to sell margarine
An odd case was heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the year 1927. A law was enacted by the Legislature in 1925, that made the manufacture and sale of margarine an illegal act in the state of Wisconsin. The law was enacted to regulate competition for the dairy industry and give advantages to industries making butter. The supreme court ruled in the John F. Jelke company v Emery case that the Legislature was not authorized to interfere in the regulation of competition for one industry or another. It was a unanimous decision that opened up the way for margarine manufacturers to operate in the state legally.
19. The Wisconsin Supreme Court made it legal for women to sue their husbands
The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard the Wait v Pierce case of 1926. Before this monumental case was decided, women did not have the right to sue their husbands in a court of law. After a careful inspection of the 1921 law that granted women voting rights, they discovered that the law also extended other rights to women. The justices’ interpretation of the law passed five years earlier helped them to determine that it was constitutional for women to enact their rights to sue their husbands. The case was important in supporting the rights of women without discrimination based on gender.
20. The Wisconsin Supreme Court voted that enhanced penalties for hate crimes were unconstitutional
In 1992 the State v Mitchel was heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The case was to decide if a state law enhancing the penalty for a crime committed against victims based on race or sexual orientation was constitutional. The court voted 5 to 2, ruling that enhanced penalties for such hate crimes were unconstitutional. The case was taken to the federal level and heard by the United States Supreme Court, which promptly reversed the decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. They didn’t always win when going up against the feds and vice versa.