There are two Jewish women on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and both speak about another Jewish woman, Shirley Abrahamson, with hushed reverence.
“Her legacy will live on in all of the women who don’t have to fight all the battles that she did,” Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky said.
Abrahamson became the first woman on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1976, and later served as the court’s chief justice for 19 years until her retirement in 2019. Abrahamson died Dec. 19. She was 87.
Abrahamson’s parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants to New York City, and she attended New York City public schools.
She graduated from New York University in three years, then entered law school at the University of Indiana in 1953 at age 19, according to Wisconsin Lawyer magazine. Abrahamson was the sole female in her graduating law school class and was first in the class in 1956.
She’s viewed as a trailblazer, someone who set the stage for the future. Today, six of the seven justices who sit on the Wisconsin Supreme Court are women.
“Among jurists, Shirley Abrahamson ranks with the very best, the brightest and most caring, the least self-regarding,” said former U.S. Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a statement, when Abrahamson retired in 2019. “She never forgets that law exists to serve all the people composing society, not just those in privileged positions.”
Wisconsin Supreme Court justices Karofsky and Rebecca Dallet echoed that notion in separate interviews.
“She understood the law’s impact on the real world,” Dallet said.
“She always fought for what she thought was right,” Karofsky said. “She stood up for the little guy over and over again.”
Abrahamson often wrote strong dissenting opinions, and they’re often attached to criminal cases and related to the rights of the accused, Karofsky said.
Service with Abrahamson
Dallet served with Abrahamson on the Wisconsin Supreme Court for about a year.
“To get to serve with her was incredible,” Dallet said. “I wish I would have had more time with her.”
That year gave Dallet a chance to “sit with her in conference and listen to her wit. She had a dry sense of humor.” Everyone appreciated that, she said, regardless of their position on a case.
“She said what she meant and meant what she said, and she would tell it like it was.”
Dallet described Abramson as “a role model for me my entire career,” someone with “strong Wisconsin values.”
Karofsky remembers Abrahamson, at least to some extent, as the mom of someone she grew up with. Abrahamson had already retired when Karofsky took her seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Aug. 1.
Before joining the court, Karofsky worked for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. There, she was asked to represent the department at Badger Girls State, the youth leadership program. Karofsky remembers driving Abrahamson to the event and chatting for hours, picking up dinner at Culver’s on the way home.
“It was an honor to be driving her, an opportunity,” Karofsky said.
“Fortunately for us in Wisconsin, her legacy will live on in the hundreds of legal opinions of which she was a part,” Karofsky added. “Her legacy is going to live on in the legacy of the Supreme Court.”
“There have been a number of antisemitic attacks on justice Dallet and me this week,” said Karofsky, interviewing in late December.
“It’s uncalled for,” Karofsky said. “There’s no one in or out of public service who should have to withstand that kind of abuse. This is despicable.” (See p. 28, “Antisemites harass Jewish justices.”)
“Shirley Abrahamson was tough,” Karofsky said, indicating that in this way, Abrahamson remains an inspiration for her when the pressure is on.
“I am trying to reach out and gain strength from people who were in these positions before me and people who are in these positions with me,” Karofsky said. “I think the way I have chosen to deal with this is to remind myself they want me to be afraid and not to live in fear.”