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Wisconsin Judge Extends Bar on Collective Bargaining Law

A Wisconsin state court judge extended indefinitely an order blocking enforcement of Governor Scott Walker’s legislation curbing public employees’ ability to engage in collective bargaining.

State Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi in Madison issued the order today after two days of hearings, maintaining a temporary ban she first put in place on March 18.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne last month sued four Republican lawmakers, alleging they violated the state’s open meetings law when they crafted the legislation Walker signed on March 11. Ozanne asked the court to block the law until the legislators could be brought before the court. Madison, the state capital, is the Dane County seat.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and three other defendant legislators are immune from suit until 15 days after the legislative session ends. Assistant State Attorney General Maria Lazar said in an interview before Sumi’s ruling that she believed that the immunity would officially end in July.

“I’m trying to figure out what Judge Sumi’s ruling actually means, and how one Dane County judge could single-handedly stand in the way of the Legislative and Executive Branches,,” Fitzgerald said in an e-mailed statement today.

Attorneys for both sides said after the hearing that they’re not positive what date will apply.

“That’s probably an issue we are going have to address in briefs,” Ozanne said after today’s proceedings. “There are also still matters pending with the Court of Appeals.”

Annual Recertification Votes

The law championed by Walker, a first-term Republican, requires annual recertification votes for union representation by public employees and makes payment of union dues voluntary. Firefighters and police officers are exempt.

Sumi issued a temporary restraining order on March 18, blocking Secretary of State Doug La Follette, a Democrat, from giving effect to the law by formally publishing it.

At Fitzgerald’s urging, the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau posted the measure on the Internet, leading state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to declare the measure in effect.

In an order issued yesterday, Sumi declared the law is not in force. Two days earlier, she’d rejected Ozanne’s request that she do so.

Walker’s administration responded with a statement saying that while it disagreed, it would comply.

“We were very surprised,” Assistant Attorney General Steven Means said yesterday, citing Sumi’s prior rebuff to Ozanne. The judge may have issued the declaration in response to press reports on what certain state officials may or may not do if the law was in effect, he said.

Sumi today ordered each side to submit three rounds of briefs on the issue of how long she could continue the temporary restraining order while awaiting the end of the legislative session. The final submissions are due on May 23.

She also said the defendant legislators could waive their immunity to suit if they sought to resolve the matter more quickly. Democratic Assemblyman Peter Barca, one of six members of the joint Senate-Assembly committee that allegedly violated the open meetings law, participated in this week’s hearing.

Lazar told reporters today she would have to discuss the issue with her clients. She declined to comment on the judge’s order.

“Nothing that happened today changes our posture,” Van Hollen’s spokesman, Bill Cosh, said in an e-mailed statement.

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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