5.6.6. The Midwest, 1965-Present; Key Legal Figures

Shirley S. Abrahamson (Wisconsin Supreme Court, 1976 - present)

  • Abrahamson was born in New York in 1933; after completing her legal training, moving to Wisconsin, obtaining an advanced legal degree and spending a brief period in private practice, she was appointed to Wisconsin’s supreme court and became its first female justice. 
  • In the late 1970s, as concerns mounted in some quarters that the U.S. Supreme Court was rolling back the expansion of civil liberties it had made in the 1950s and 1960s, Justice William Brennan argued that state constitutions could be interpreted to provide more civil liberties than the U.S. Constitution and could protect Americans from any encroachment by the federal high court.  A loose confederation of law professors and state judges supported Brennan’s concept of a “new federalism”; Abrahamson was one its earliest supporters and has continued to promote the concept nationally during her long judicial career.
  • Abrahamson has been a consistent defender of expansive civil liberties but has had only mixed success in promoting her vision among her Wisconsin colleagues.  She has been Wisconsin's chief justice since 1993, during a time of increasing independence and friction among stat supreme court justices generally, and here career as chief justice illustrates the difficulties of preserving institutional unity in an increasingly individualistic era.
“State constitutional law has deep roots in our legal system and can foster not a weaker but a stronger union of states.” “[S]ome oppose the new federalism, saying the state courts are thwarting and evading judicial review.  … [But it] is entirely appropriate in our federal system for state courts to base their decisions on state law, free of federal intervention.”

Randall Shepard (Indiana Supreme Court, 1984-2012)

  • Shepard was born into an old Indiana family in 1946.  After completing college and law school at Princeton and Yale respectively, he returned to Indiana and was appointed to the supreme court after brief stints in state and federal government service and as a trial judge.
  • Like Abrahamson, Shepard has been a leading advocate of the "new federalism."  He has written prolifically on the subject, particularly its potential for expanding civil liberties at the state level.  Shepard has also been active in efforts to streamline Indiana's system of local government.

“The rights of Americans cannot be secure if they are protected only by courts or only by one court.  … [S]tate supreme courts and state constitutions [must] be strong and independent centers of authority in order to protect the rights of all Americans.”

Shirley Abrahamson (Wisconsin)

Randall Shepard (Indiana)