Wisconsin Law Curbing State Workers’ Unions Blocked by Judge

Wisconsin Law Curbing State Workers’ Unions Blocked by Judge
Organized labor and Democrats called the bill an attack on workers. Opposition sparked almost four weeks of mass protests at the Capitol. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

A Wisconsin county prosecutor persuaded a state judge to temporarily block a law that would strip government employee unions of most of their collective-bargaining power.

Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi yesterday granted a temporary restraining order blocking publication of the measure signed into law by Governor Scott Walker on March 11, after a hearing in the state’s capital city, Madison. Publication gives the law full force and effect.

“The legislature and the governor, not a single Dane County Circuit Court judge, are responsible for the enactment of laws,” Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said in an e-mailed statement. He said the state plans to appeal Sumi’s order.

The legislation championed by Walker, a first-term Republican, requires annual recertification votes for union representation and makes voluntary the payment of union dues. It exempts firefighters and police officers.

Organized labor and Democrats called the bill an attack on workers. Opposition sparked almost four weeks of mass protests at the Capitol.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael R. Ozanne, acting on four filed complaints -- three by elected officials and one by a union leader -- asked the court to bar publication. In addition to being the state capital, Madison is the Dane County seat.

Open-Meeting Law

Ozanne accused four Republican lawmakers of violating the state’s open-meetings law when they gathered to craft a legislative measure that was then passed by both houses and signed by Walker.

State law required 24 hours’ notice before the legislation could be considered by the joint committee of six senate and assembly members, the prosecutor said in a March 16 filing. The legislators gave less than two hours’ notice of their March 9 meeting, according to Ozanne’s complaint.

“No good cause existed such that the notice of 24 hours was impractical or impossible,” the prosecutor said, arguing that the law should be declared void. The public’s interest in enforcing the open-meetings law “outweighs any public interest in maintaining the validity” of their actions.

Assistant Attorney General Maria Lazar yesterday told Sumi the joint committee had passed a rule that superseded the open-meetings law.

“The plaintiff is asking the court to interject itself into the legislative process. That cannot be done,” Lazar said.

‘Rock Solid’

Open-meetings case law is “rock solid,” Sumi replied.

“Dane County always seems to play by its own rules, but this morning we saw a Dane County judge try to re-write the constitutional separation of powers,” state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said yesterday in a joint statement issued with his brother and co-defendant in the Ozanne case, Assemblyman Jeff Fitzgerald.

“We fully expect an appeals court will find that the legislature followed the law perfectly and likely find that yesterday’s ruling was a significant overreach,” said the Fitzgeralds, who are Republicans.

Assemblyman Mark Pocan, a Democrat, said he applauded the judge’s ruling.

“In FitzWalkerstan, Republicans don’t follow the rule of law in their haste to bust unions and balance the Wisconsin budget on the backs of the middleclass,” Pocan said in an e-mail to Bloomberg News.

The judge’s order temporarily blocks Wisconsin Secretary of State Douglas LaFollette from publishing the text of the law, the final step before its implementation.

LaFollette, a Democrat, said earlier he planned to publish the law by March 25. He is also a defendant in the case.

Perceived Procedural Irregularities

Van Hollen, in his press statement, said the court had no authority to enjoin LaFollette and that the secretary of state has no discretion to refuse publication because of “perceived procedural irregularities or constitutional concerns.”

Before proceeding with an appeal, the state must first obtain permission to pursue that remedy from the intermediate-level Wisconsin Court of Appeals, Assistant Attorney General Steven Means said yesterday in a telephone interview.

“This legislation is still working through the legal process,” Cullen Werwie, Walker’s spokesman, said in an e-mail after Sumi’s ruling. “We are confident the provisions of the Budget Repair Bill will become law in the near future.”

Under the new law, state workers would contribute about 5.8 percent of their salaries toward pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health-insurance costs. The legislation would generate $30 million in savings this fiscal year and $300 million in the next two, the governor has said.

14 Democrats Boycotted

Fourteen Democratic members of the state Senate boycotted the proceedings producing the law, including Minority Leader Mark Miller. He would have been one of six legislators, two from his party and four Republicans, to comprise the joint-conference committee.

Besides the Fitzgerald brothers, the other Republican members of the conference committee named as defendants in the Ozanne suit are Senator Michael Ellis and Assemblyman Scott Suder. Also on the committee was Democratic Assemblyman Peter Barca.

Sumi was appointed to the bench in 1998 by then-governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican. She was elected in 1999 and 2005 without running on a party line, an assistant to the judge, Molly Schroder, said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Re-Passing Bill

“She opened the door to simply re-passing the bill,” Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said of the judge’s ruling. “It throws the ball back into the Democrats’ court. Do they leave again?”

Asked by Lazar in court if her temporary restraining order prevented the legislature from taking up the issue again, the judge replied, “I have no right to do that.”

Werwie declined to say if that option would be pursued.

“We aren’t going to comment on specific procedures of the Legislature given the pending legal issues surrounding this topic,” Werwie said in an e-mailed message to Bloomberg News.

Ozanne sued after complaints were filed with his office by Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, Barca and Martin Biel, executive director of a Madison-based council of the Wisconsin state employees union.

“State employees believe that nobody is above the law,” Biel said in an e-mailed statement after Sumi’s decision. “We are gratified to see some of our so-called ‘leaders’ finally held accountable for their illegal actions.”

The case is State of Wisconsin Ex Rel. Ozanne v. Fitzgerald, 11cv1244, Dane County, Wisconsin, Circuit Court (Madison).

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