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Wisconsin Law Limiting Union Rights Again Put on Hold by Judge

A Wisconsin law meant to limit public employees’ collective-bargaining rights was again blocked by a judge who renewed her temporary order as state officials disagreed over whether the statute was already in force.

Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi yesterday issued a two-page ruling barring “further implementation” of the law after a day of hearings at the state courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city. Her previous order was either “misunderstood or ignored,” she said from the bench.

The judge declined to say whether a state agency’s Internet posting of the measure on March 25 was tantamount to publication of the law, giving it effect. The previous order restrained Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the law.

“Those who act in willful and open defiance of a court order place not only themselves at peril of sanctions,” Sumi said. “They also jeopardize the financial and the governmental stability of the state of Wisconsin.”

Governor Scott Walker, a first-term Republican, signed the law on March 11. It requires annual recertification votes for union representation by public employees and makes payment of union dues voluntary. Firefighters and police officers are exempt.

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

Capitol Protests

Democrats and organized labor called the bill an attack on workers’ rights. Opposition sparked almost four weeks of protests around and inside the Capitol.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne on March 16 sued to invalidate the measure, arguing it was the product of a violation of Wisconsin’s open meetings law. Madison is also the Dane County seat.

Sumi stayed La Follette’s publication two days later. The secretary of state, a Democrat, is the grand-nephew of former Wisconsin governor and U.S. Senator Robert La Follette, who ran for president on the Progressive ticket in 1924, losing to Republican Calvin Coolidge.

The March 25 Internet posting by the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau led Walker’s administration to claim that the measure now had the force of law. Citing the web posting, state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen on March 28 told a state appeals court that he wished to withdraw his request to appeal Sumi’s March 18 order.

The appeals court yesterday denied Van Hollen’s request, saying it had already referred the dispute to the state’s Supreme Court and that the attorney general should have filed his withdrawal request there.

Legal Immunity

Ozanne, a Democrat, is seeking a preliminary injunction, which would preserve the status quo until the four Republican legislators he claims breached the open meetings law are out of session and no longer immune to lawsuits. Yesterday’s hearing is scheduled to continue on April 1.

“We have serious concerns about the court’s decision to continue these proceedings under the current set of circumstances,” Bill Cosh, a spokesman for Van Hollen, said in an e-mailed statement. “We’ll take our time between now and the next scheduled hearing to decide what our best options are to protect the state’s interests.”

The prosecutor’s case is State of Wisconsin Ex Rel. Ozanne v. Fitzgerald, 11cv1244, Dane County, Wisconsin, Circuit Court (Madison). The appellate case is Ozanne v. Fitzgerald, 2011AP613-LV, Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District 4 (Madison).

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