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Judge to decide emergency block on union law (UPDATE)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge plans to decide Friday whether to block the state’s new and contentious collective bargaining law from taking effect.

Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi on Thursday set aside nearly five hours for a hearing Friday morning and indicated she was willing to go beyond that time to ensure she had enough evidence to make a decision.

In a lawsuit filed this week, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne contends a legislative committee that broke a stalemate that had kept the law in limbo for weeks met without the proper 24-hour notice required by Wisconsin’s open meetings law. A separate lawsuit that Sumi will also consider Friday alleges full Senate’s vote on the law was improper.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the measure last week and Gov. Scott Walker signed it into law on Friday. Both Walker and Republican leaders insist it was enacted properly.

The law can’t take effect until it’s formally published by Secretary of State Doug La Follette, a Democrat. He has 10 days after the governor signs a law to publish it, and he has said he plans to use all the time allotted to him before doing so on March 25.

Ozanne, also a Democrat, wants Sumi to grant an emergency order blocking La Follette from publishing the law while a judge weighs the merits of his case.

Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk filed a similar lawsuit on Friday. Falk also sought an emergency order blocking publication, but Judge Amy Smith denied it and said Falk’s attorneys had failed to prove the law’s implementation would cause irreparable harm as the lawsuit works its way through the courts. Falk later asked the law be blocked on a non-emergency basis.

Sumi plans to consider Ozanne’s request for an emergency order on Friday and, as time permits, Falk’s request for a non-emergency order. She has said, however, she will not decide Falk’s request that day and plans to be out of the office all next week.

That means that unless someone else files an emergency request to block publication next week and it lands with a different judge, Democrats’ hopes of blocking the new law rests with Sumi on Friday morning.

State Justice Department Assistant Attorney General Steven Kilpatrick, who is representing La Follette and Republican legislative leaders named as defendants, hinted Thursday he may argue that legislators enjoy immunity from lawsuits while the Legislature is in session. He declined further comment after the court proceeding ended.

According to the Wisconsin Constitution, legislators aren’t subject to any civil process for 15 days before a session, during the session and for 15 days following the session. That rule, however, does not apply to La Follette.

The law would require most public workers in the state to contribute more to their pension and health care costs, changes that will amount on average to an 8 percent pay cut. The law also strips of them of nearly all their collective bargaining rights.

Walker has said the changes are necessary to help the state balance its current $137 million deficit and fix a $3.6 billion hole in the state’s upcoming two-year budget. Democrats believe the governor is trying to cripple unions, one of the party’s staunchest campaign allies.

Tens of thousands of people converged on the state Capitol over the past month to protest the measure with massive demonstrations that went on for days on end. Minority Democrats in the Senate fled to Illinois to block a vote on the law.

Republican leaders broke the impasse on March 9 by convening a special committee that removed what Republicans said were all the fiscal components from the plan, allowing the Senate to vote without a full quorum present. Senate Republicans passed the proposal minutes later. Assembly Republicans followed suit the next day, and Walker signed it Friday.

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