Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s administration will ask the state’s highest court to take over and then dismiss a legal challenge to legislation limiting public employees’ ability to engage in collective bargaining.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court today is hearing arguments from lawyers for the administration, the state prosecutor who challenged the legality of the law and the trial court judge who on May 26 ruled that the measure was the improper product of a state open-meetings law violation.
Assistant Attorney General Kevin St. John argued today that the case is one of a separation of powers and the circuit court overstepped its authority.
“This court should act now to restore the balance of power,” St. John said. “The legislature has the exclusive right to determine its process.”
Walker, a first-term Republican, signed the challenged legislation on March 11. It requires annual recertification votes for public employees’ union representation and makes their payment of membership dues voluntary. Firefighters and police officers are exempt.
Under the new law, state workers would contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries toward pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health-insurance costs.
Democrats and organized labor opposed the legislation as an attack on worker rights. Opposition sparked almost four weeks of protests around and inside the state capitol.
Dane County prosecutor Ismael Ozanne filed suit on March 16 at the state courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin’s capital and the county seat. He alleged the bill was drafted by a conference committee of six legislators which afforded less than two hours public notice of the meeting rather than the requisite 24.
Four of those legislators were Republicans, including state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assemblyman Jeff Fitzgerald. Only one of the two Democratic legislators, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, participated in the March 9 meeting and did so under protest.
Judge Maryann Sumi issued a temporary order blocking publication of the measure on March 18, the last step required to give it force and effect.
When state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen appealed that ruling to an intermediate appellate court, that panel referred it to the Supreme Court, asking whether a trial court judge could void a law created in violation of the open-meetings rule.
Posted on Internet
While Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette said he would comply with Sumi’s ruling, a state agency posted the law on the Internet, leading administration officials to claim it was effective, prompting Sumi to issue a supplemental order in which she said the measure remained stayed.
Van Hollen, on April 7, petitioned Wisconsin’s Supreme Court to invoke original jurisdiction, wrest control of the Ozanne-filed case from Sumi and dismiss it, arguing that the Internet publication by the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau mooted the legal challenge.
With that application still pending, Sumi last month ruled the law was illegitimately created.
“This case is an exemplar of values protected by the open meetings law: transparency in government, the right of citizens to participate in their government and respect for rule of law,” Sumi wrote in her ruling.
“There’s still a much larger separation-of-powers issue: whether one Madison judge can stand in the way of the other two democratically elected branches of government,” Senator Scott Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement reacting to the ruling.
The cases are State, ex-rel Ozanne v. Fitzgerald, 2011AP613; and State v. Circuit Court for Dane County, 2011AP765, Wisconsin Supreme Court (Madison).
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