By TODD RICHMOND
Madison, Wis. (AP) — Having declared that Wisconsin’s divisive union law isn’t really a law yet, a judge was set to return to one of the underlying questions dogging the measure — whether Republicans violated the state’s open meetings law during the frenzied run-up to passage.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration reluctantly suspended efforts to enact the law Thursday after Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi unexpectedly declared the measure hadn’t been properly published. The move marked another round in a messy legal fight over the law, which requires most public workers to pay more for their benefits and strips away most of their collective bargaining rights.
Democrats and unions have filed three lawsuits challenging the law. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne’s action has taken center stage so far; he alleges Republicans didn’t provide the proper public notice when it convened a special committee to amend the plan before its passage.
Sumi earlier issued an emergency restraining order blocking the secretary of state from publishing the bill while she considered the case, but Republicans persuaded another state office to publish it, raising questions about whether the law was in effect. Sumi settled that unequivocally with her declaration early Thursday morning: No.
The judge is scheduled to take more testimony on the open meetings allegations on Friday. It’s unclear when Sumi may rule, but any decision almost certainly will trigger a storm of appeals that could stretch to the state Supreme Court.
“Either Judge Sumi will have lifted the (emergency order) … or, what I consider the more likely outcome, she’ll issue an injunction and we’ll all be in the position of waiting for the Supreme Court to say something,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor Howard Schweber.
State Justice Department attorneys contend the Senate’s internal rules trump the open meetings law. Sumi’s authority is limited to constitutional questions; an open meetings violation doesn’t rise to that level, they say. Plus, they argue, Ozanne can’t sue Republican legislators because state lawmakers are immune from civil actions while the Legislature is in session.
Ozanne’s witness list includes members of the Senate chief clerk’s staff, who will presumably testify about efforts they took to notify the public about the special committee meeting, as well as a Madison man who claims he wasn’t allowed into the chamber where the committee met because it was full of people.
The collective bargaining law has been a flashpoint of contention since Walker introduced it in mid-February.
Under the law, most public sector workers must contribute more to their pensions and health care, changes that amount to an 8 percent pay cut. The measure also prohibits them from collectively bargaining on all work conditions except wage increase up to the rate of inflation.
Walker has said the law is needed to help the state balance a $137 million deficit and give local governments enough flexibility with their employees to withstand deep cuts in state aid coming in the next two-year budget.
Democrats see the law as an attempt to weaken unions, which are among the party’s strongest campaign supporters. Tens of thousands of people turned up at the state Capitol for protests that went on for three weeks, and Senate Democrats fled to Illinois to block a vote in that chamber.
To get around that roadblock, Republicans called a special committee meeting on March 9 and stripped the fiscal elements out of the bill, enabling the Senate to vote without the Democrats. The Assembly passed the bill the next day, and Walker signed it into law on March 11.
Republicans now must choose between waiting for the legal challenge to be resolved or trying to pass the measure again. Republicans appear reluctant to take that route, which would almost certainly re-ignite demonstrations and Democratic filibusters.
“We did it correctly and legally the first time, and we have confidence that the constitution shows that separation of powers actually means something,” said Andrew Welhouse, a spokesman for Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
Republicans also must contend with lawsuits from Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and a group of public sector unions. Both lawsuits argue the law still contains fiscal components, meaning the Senate needed a full quorum to vote.
“The administration needs to win everything,” said University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee. “Its opponents only need to win one. In a sense, you’d say advantage unions.”