MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Attorneys for Republican lawmakers asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday to overturn a judge’s order blocking the state’s polarizing union rights law, while Democrats urged the justices to uphold the ruling or make the GOP go through the usual — and slow — appeals process.
The court heard hours of testimony, setting the stage for what could be the most decisive ruling on the law’s fate since the Republican-controlled Legislature passed it nearly three months ago.
GOP lawmakers are hoping the justices will act quickly because the measure is a key part of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to close a $3.6 billion hole in the state budget. If it remains in limbo, the state could face a host of new financial problems when a new, two-year budget goes into effect July 1.
To avoid that, state attorneys have taken the unusual step of bypassing lower appeals courts and asking the Supreme Court to step in immediately. They are counting on the court’s conservative majority to overturn a ruling from Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi declaring the law void.
The law calls for almost all public workers to contribute more to their health care and pensions and strips them of nearly all their collective bargaining rights. Walker, who crafted it, says it’s needed to give local communities the ability to save enough money to weather deep cuts he plans to make in state aid.
Republicans could insert the collective bargaining restrictions into the budget bill they will take up later this month, but they fear re-igniting the bitter debate over the plan that paralyzed state government this past spring. Tens of thousands of demonstrators toting bongo drums, amplifiers and sleeping bags occupied the state Capitol for three weeks, and Senate Democrats fled to Illinois in an ultimately futile attempt to block a vote.
Republicans worked around the Democrats’ absence by convening a special committee to peel the fiscal elements from the proposal, allowing it to pass with fewer senators present. That led to Sumi’s ruling last month: She determined Republican lawmakers violated the state’s open meetings law by failing to give proper public notice of the committee’s meeting.
About 75 people packed the Supreme Court chambers during oral arguments. Shortly after noon, people singing “We Shall Overcome” in the Capitol rotunda could be heard through the doors.
Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John argued Sumi had no authority to insert herself in the legislative process and block a law from taking effect. He accused her of trampling the separation of powers between the judiciary and Legislature and said every moment her order stands causes the state irreparable harm.
The open meetings law can’t be used to invalidate another statute, he said, arguing a law is only void if it violates the state Constitution.
“This decision is unprecedented,” St. John told the justices. “The core democratic power of the people … has been nullified.”
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, the liberal faction of the seven-member court, interrupted St. John repeatedly with relentless questions on technical legal matters, preventing him from fleshing out his arguments. They refused to let him step down after his allotted 50 minutes to speak had elapsed, helping push the hearing long past its scheduled two hours.
Then the four-justice conservative bloc challenged Sumi’s attorney, Marie Stanton, to defend the judge’s decision.
Justice Michael Gableman peppered Stanton with questions about how Sumi reconciled her order with prohibitions on legislating from the bench. He questioned the limits of a judge’s authority in open meeting cases, asking whether a judge could go as far as preventing a legislator from introducing a bill.
“Where does it stop?” he asked.
Stanton replied that the Legislature invited judges to participate in making laws by passing the open meetings statutes.
“If the circuit court cannot stop this implementation, how is … the Legislature’s promise to abide by the open meetings law … kept? Who enforces it?” she asked.
The court, which also has what’s considered a swing vote in Justice Patrick Crooks, will make its decision in a lawsuit filed by Democrat Ismael Ozanne, the prosecutor in Dane County, which includes Madison, the liberal state capital. Ozanne asked the justices to stand down and let the case follow a more traditional track through the lower courts. He said such a move would provide a complete record for the justices if the case makes its way to them again.
There’s no deadline for the Supreme Court to decide whether to accept the case or rule on its merits. Two public union chapters have filed a separate lawsuit challenging the collective bargaining provisions. That case is still pending.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison contributed to this report.