(Author’s note: From Indiana University Alumni Magazine, November 20, 2002)
Until adulthood, Shirley Abrahamson rarely left her native New York City. The Midwest – where the diminutive legal scholar would become a judicial giant – seemed as far away as the moon.
But, married at age 19, she boarded a train to Bloomington, Ind., where her husband studied. Abrahamson, a self-proclaimed provincial New Yorker became a Hoosier – and soon began a groundbreaking career as a judge. Her work toward a law degree from Indiana University’s School of Law in 1956 coincided with her husband’s academic path, but the Midwest offered her perspective.
“It taught me what a wonderful country was out there,” says Abrahamson, a 27-year veteran of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court and its chief justice since 1996. “There was a sense of discovery in speech, food, pace of life, attitudes, ethnicity, and cultural base. That wouldn’t have happened if I had stayed in New York City.”
The lone female in her graduating class at the Law School, Abrahamson earned an academic scholarship. Living with her husband, Seymour, on Third Street and enjoying close friends, she ranked No. 1 in her class.
Now 69 and a staunch liberal voice on Wisconsin’s high court, Abrahamson says she never faced gender discrimination at IU – until graduation approached. The school’s dean, Leon Wallace, suggested she leave the state to begin her career.
“I was quite surprised by that,” Abrahamson says. “He didn’t think the Law School could place me except, perhaps, as a law librarian in a law firm.”
At the time, she says, the top few IU graduates automatically landed with big Indianapolis firms. She didn’t receive that opportunity.
Instead, she followed her husband to New Jersey before they settled in Madison, Wis. She earned a doctorate in American legal history and joined a Madison law firm in 1961. The Abrahamsons have one son, Daniel, a lawyer in Oakland, Calif.
After 15 years in private practice, Abrahamson was appointed in 1976 by Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey to the state’s Supreme Court. The first woman to serve in that capacity, she won four 10-year judicial terms in elections in 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 and was mentioned as a U.S. Supreme Court candidate during the Clinton presidency.
Her office in Wisconsin’s Capitol building carries enough law books to make one worry it will collapse to the lower floor. An eager traveler who has been on seven continents, she keeps Japanese art on the walls, fond memories of joining her husband, who made many professional and academic trips there.
Among Wisconsin legal community, Abrahamson receives accolades for her sharpness and relentless work ethic. On a frosty winter Madison morning, she began a typical day, working at home at 6 a.m. She arrived at her office by 8 and planned to work an average day, she says, until 10 p.m.
“If it’s a good night,” she says, “I might work until midnight.”
“They’re really good work days. The phone doesn’t ring as much,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t go out to dinner or a play or a concert.”
Call her a workaholic and she scoffs. Asked about her daunting schedule, she admits, “I don’t need a lot of sleep.”
She pauses and tries to help form own description.
“If you have to label me, I would say reasonable.” There’s another pause. “And fair and impartial.”