Justice Abrahamson by the Numbers

In September, Justice Shirley Abrahamson began her forty-third term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a span of service several years longer than that of the previous record, intact for over a century.[1]  As she has announced that her forty-third term will also be her last, it seems an appropriate time to provide some perspective on the remarkable length of Justice Abrahamson’s tenure—and how prolific she has been during it.

Over the past 42 terms (1976-77 through 2017-18), Justice Abrahamson has authored 530 majority (or lead) opinions.  When concurrences and dissents are included, we arrive at a total of 1342—an average of 32 opinions per term.[2]  (Click here for a term-by-term display of Justice Abrahamson’s writings.  The table will open in a separate window, which should facilitate comparison with the data for other justices in the tables that follow.)

To appreciate the magnitude of this output, let’s measure it against that of a “field” consisting of Justices A.W. Bradley, Roggensack, Ziegler, R.G. Bradley, Kelly, and Gableman (Table 1).  Through 2017-18, these six justices have served 64 individual terms—52% more than Justice Abrahamson’s 42 terms.  During this period, they generated 1107 opinions (majority/lead, concurrences, and dissents), an average of 17 opinions per term for an individual justice (1107/64).  By herself, then, Justice Abrahamson has written 235 more opinions than the entire field, and she did so in 22 fewer individual terms.  Hence the fact that her average of 32 opinions per term is nearly double that of the average for the field’s individual justices.[3]

Given that majority/lead opinions are distributed fairly evenly each year, the most striking gap between Justice Abrahamson and the field emerges when we focus exclusively on the number of dissents written by each justice.  The 490 dissents authored by Justice Abrahamson far exceed the field’s total of 307 (Table 2).

Even if we reinforce the field by adding Justice Prosser (18 terms, 86 dissents), Justice Crooks (19 terms, 60 dissents), and Justice Butler (4 terms, 25 dissents), the 478 dissents written by all nine justices is still 12 shy of the number produced by Justice Abrahamson alone.  Moreover, by recruiting Justices Prosser, Crooks, and Butler, we increase to 105 the number of individual terms served by the field.  This yields an average of 4.6 dissents per term for an individual justice (478/105)—well below Justice Abrahamson’s average of 11.7 dissents per term (490/42).

The fact that the court decided much larger numbers of cases during Justice Abrahamson’s early years on the bench than it has of late, combined with her maverick inclination to author dissents, make it difficult to imagine any current or future member of the court surpassing Justice Abrahamson’s output of 1342 opinions (and counting).

 

[1] The record had been held by Orsamus Cole, who served from 1855 to 1892.  In some reliable sources, his first name is spelled Orsamus (click here for an example), while in others it is spelled Orasmus (click here for an example).

[2] There may be a small number of separate opinions associated with rulings arising from such things as (1) motions and petitions, (2) disciplinary matters involving lawyers and judges, and (3) dismissals of cases because review had been improvidently granted.  Opinions of this sort, if any, are not included in the figures in this post.

[3] To be clear, figures for any individual justice do not include other justices’ concurrences or dissents joined by the individual in question.

About Alan Ball

Alan Ball is a Professor of History at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

alan.ball@marquette.edu

SCOWstats offers numerical analysis of the voting by Wisconsin Supreme Court justices on diverse issues over the past 41 years.

Comments

  1. Benbow Cheesman says:

    The numbers alone are, indeed, impressive. They become even more so when one examines the depth of reasoning and the quality of writing, and considers the amount of time and effort reflected in her submissions. I believe it was Brandeis who once replied to a compliment on his writing that “there’s no good writing; only good re-writing.”

Speak Your Mind

*