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View from around the state: Another illustration of division in courts

From the Beloit Daily News

Want yet another example of how thoroughly befouled Wisconsin’s court system has become?

A trial court judge in liberal Dane County has declared the so-called right-to-work law passed by the conservative majority in the Wisconsin Legislature to be unconstitutional. This, despite half the states in the union having right-to-work laws and abundant case law upholding their constitutionality. Never let it be said Dane County’s liberal judges surrender easily.

Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel vows to appeal Judge William Foust’s ruling and says he is confident of reversal.

As well he should be, considering the reality of the courts today in Wisconsin. The appellate court may be something of a crapshoot for Schimel but once his appeal reaches the Wisconsin Supreme Court it’s as predictable as the sun rising in the east. The 5-2 conservative majority will grant Schimel’s appeal and sustain the legislature’s will. The millions of dollars spent over the past decade or so to elect that conservative majority will not go unrewarded.

And so it goes in Wisconsin. A politically charged law bounces back and forth between liberal and conservative judges, fighting partisan wars by other means.

But it’s also solid law. The legislation is anathema to organized labor but a long record of unsuccessful challenges suggests its constitutionality is not really in question.

We’re of two minds on the subject. There’s something cringe-worthy about the zeal with which Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate relentlessly have attacked unions of every stripe. First, state leaders made it their business to take down public unions — Act 10 all but destroyed organized labor in the public sector. Aside from police, fire and a handful of transportation workers there really are no public employees with meaningful union rights anymore because they were left with nothing to negotiate. Predictably, workers see no point in paying dues to a union that has no authority to score any gains. The result: Union membership has declined statewide to a mere shadow of its previous level.

At the time Walker had said he had no interest in targeting private-sector unionism or enacting right-to-work legislation. He even called the idea “a distraction.”

But when the legislature teed it up — and nobody really believes it did so over the governor’s objections — Walker not only eagerly signed it, he made right-to-work and his anti-unionism the centerpiece of his short-lived presidential campaign.

The common folks of Wisconsin should question why it has seemed so important to state leaders to hamstring both public and private unions. Here’s one possibility: If business interests have been the “point” behind campaign funding for Republicans, unions have been the “counter-point” in funding Democrats. Recent history shows union spending in Wisconsin elections has fallen off a cliff. Probably not just an unintended consequence.

Still, on the merits, there’s something just as unseemly about the concept of forcing people to pay union dues if that’s not what they want to do.

On its face, that’s the purpose of right-to-work legislation — prohibiting contracts that require paying union dues in order to be employed at a given enterprise.

The law does not abolish unions. It does shield individuals who may not believe in unions from being barred from employment by enterprises unless they first fork out union dues.

The unions call that free-riding — enjoying the benefits of union negotiations without helping to pay the costs. It’s not hard to see that point.

But like many other facets of life, a balance between competing rights must be struck. Thus far, that balance has been found in protecting the rights of unions to organize and negotiate — but also protecting the rights of individuals to decline union membership and the paying of union dues or the equivalent. Perfect? Not particularly. But it has been upheld across America.

Maybe, this time, the union position will be upheld by the courts.

But with precedent elsewhere, and with that 5-2 conservative court majority waiting in the wings, that outcome is highly unlikely.

To paraphrase the late Chicago newspaper humorist and columnist Finley Peter Dunne, the courts do indeed follow the election returns.

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