Wisconsin’s High Court Asked by Official to Toss Union Law Case

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court was asked by state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to throw out a lower-court case in which a judge barred enforcement of a law limiting public workers’ ability to engage in collective bargaining.

Van Hollen filed his petition with the state’s high court yesterday, saying he isn’t appealing Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi March 18 restraining order. Acting instead on behalf of Mike Huebsch, the secretary of the state’s Department of Administration, the attorney general is asking the Supreme Court to take jurisdiction over the matter and dismiss it.

“A Dane County judge has basically issued a permanent restraining order,” Huebsch said in a statement announcing the filing. “In doing so, she has created uncertainty for state and local governments that are relying on the reforms.”

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, signed the legislation on March 11. The bill 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 new law, state workers would contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries toward pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health-insurance costs. Walker has said the measure would generate $30 million in savings this fiscal year and $300 million in the next two years.

Protests at Capitol

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 District Attorney Ismael Ozanne last month sued four Republican lawmakers, alleging they violated the state’s open meetings law when they crafted the legislation. Ozanne asked Sumi to block the law until the legislators could be brought before the court. The prosecutor is a Democrat.

Sumi, after two days of testimony, on April 1 extended her original order indefinitely while asking the parties to brief her on how long she could maintain the injunction while the defendant legislators were in session and immune from suit.

Van Hollen, in his brief filed yesterday, told the Supreme Court it cannot invalidate the legislation because of an open-meetings law violation. The attorney general, a Republican, also told the high court that Sumi’s injunction was “ineffective” and that the law is in force.

While the judge’s order restraining Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette was in effect, the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau posted the measure on the Internet after being asked to do so by Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who is a defendant in the Ozanne suit.

Permission Denied

Van Hollen and Huebsch then each issued statements saying the law was in force. Still, when the attorney general told an intermediate level appellate court he wished to withdraw a request for permission to appeal Sumi’s March 18 order, the three-judge appellate panel declined to do so.

That Madison-based court told Van Hollen it had already referred the issue to the state Supreme Court.

La Follette’s lawyer, Roger Sage, said yesterday he hadn’t had time to read the attorney general’s filing and couldn’t immediately comment.

Ozanne didn’t reply to a phone message seeking comment.

Supreme Court Certification

“I don’t think the Supreme Court should accept certification at this juncture,” said Robert Jambois, an attorney for Democratic legislator Peter Barca, who was part of the six-person joint Senate-Assembly committee that crafted the law. “If they were to do so, they would not have the advantage of any of the briefs at the trial court.”

Jambois, who served 18 years as the Kenosha County District Attorney, said it was unusual to bring a case directly to the Supreme Court.

“I have only had two cases that went right to the Supreme Court in all the years I was a district attorney,” he said. “It is unusual but not unprecedented.”

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

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