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Wisconsin Senate panel approves changes to chief justice election

MADISON, WI (WTAQ) - A Senate committee has voted to make the State Supreme Court elect a new chief justice every two years -- thus making it easier for the court's philosophical majority to have one of its own in charge. 

That majority is conservative at the moment, and the conservative majority on the Senate judiciary panel voted 3-2 Tuesday in favor of a constitutional amendment for the change. Both Democrats voted no. 

Meanwhile, the Assembly's Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the amendment, where its chief sponsor denied trying to give more power to his fellow conservatives on the court -- or to lessen the influence of liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. 

Brookfield Republican Rob Hutton said the 124-year-old practice of having the most senior justice as the chief is outdated. He said his measure would reduce political differences within the court, and encourage more collaboration on cases. 

The Assembly panel plans a vote Thursday. Republican leaders of both houses expect to act on the amendment in November.  

It would also have to pass in the next session, and then by voters in a statewide referendum. The earliest the change could take effect is 2015. 

The chief justice is normally the public face of the Supreme Court and the administrative head of the state's court system. However, the chief justice does not have overriding veto power in scheduling cases that the high court considers.