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GOP bill would make high court take cases (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The president of the Wisconsin Senate has crafted a bill that would require the state Supreme Court to take up constitutional challenges to state statutes directly and rule within a matter of months, removing lower courts from the cases.

Sen. Michael Ellis, R-Neenah, sent an email to all legislators Thursday asking for co-sponsors. He said the bill would lead to faster final decisions and eliminate confusion about whether a law is in effect during an appellate process that can drag on for years.

Four conservative justices often seen as sympathetic to the GOP control the Supreme Court. Ellis said in a telephone interview he believes the state Supreme Court should decide issues on laws that affect the entire state rather than local judges.

“(Lower courts are) in effect negating on a temporary basis an act of the Legislature. Only the Supreme Court should have that authority on constitutional issues,” he said. “It’s about bringing some finality to an act of the Legislature … I don’t think this is unreasonable.”

But Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, a member of the Assembly’s judiciary committee, called the bill a power grab. People already can petition the Supreme Court to take a case directly, he said.

“Just because Republicans do not like the results of current litigation does not mean that we should change the rules of the game,” he said in an email. “These are incredibly important decisions that should not be rushed by artificial timelines set by the Legislature.”

Ellis’ bill comes as lawsuits over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s contentious law stripping most public workers of nearly all their union rights are still working their way through the courts. A Dane County circuit judge declared the law unconstitutional in September, prompting a state Justice Department appeal that is still pending. A federal appellate panel upheld the law last month, creating confusion. Two other lawsuits are pending in state court as well.

Meanwhile, two other Dane County judges have blocked a Republican law requiring people to show photo identification before voting. The Justice Department has asked the state Supreme Court to take its appeals but the high court has refused, forcing the agency to go through the appellate process.

Republicans have long held that Madison judges have a liberal bias. The GOP has been looking to limit their power since taking full control of state government in 2011.

Legislators passed a law that spring allowing people to challenge state agency rules in the county where they live or the county where the dispute arose, rather than just in Madison. More recently, Republicans tucked a clause into a bill that would overhaul mining regulations to require people to file any challenges to permitting decisions in the county where a mine would be located instead of Madison. That bill is still moving through the Legislature.

Under Ellis’ bill, the Supreme Court would have original jurisdiction over any lawsuit alleging a statute violates the Wisconsin Constitution if the lawsuit is filed within a year of the statute becoming law.

The high court would have to issue a decision within 120 days. The court would get an additional 30 days if the justices ask a lower court or referee for a determination of the facts or damages.

Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, a member of the Senate’s judiciary committee, said the bill is designed to push inevitable challenges to the mining bill to the high court. He said the bill tramples the boundary between the legislative and judicial branches of government.

“This bill is telling the Supreme Court what to do and how to do it,” he said. “It eliminates trials and contested cases. That violates, in my opinion, the judicial process all together.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, had no immediate comment. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said Vos was still reviewing the bill and hasn’t taken a position on it.

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