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Wisconsin Judge Voids Walker’s Public-Employee Union Law

A Wisconsin judge voided a law that would limit public employees’ collective-bargaining rights because the legislation was passed in violation of state open-meetings requirements.

In her decision today, Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi didn’t rule on the merits of the law championed by first-term Republican Governor Scott Walker. She said lawmakers could still pass the measure if they abide by public-notice rules.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court on June 6 will hear arguments on whether it can take control of the case and, if warranted, dismiss it. The law requires annual recertification votes for union representation by public employees and makes union dues voluntary. Firefighters and police officers are exempt.

“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 decision.

Sumi halted enforcement of the legislation on March 18 after the suit was filed by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, alleging the law was drafted in violation of the open meetings law. She later declared the law wasn’t in force.

Ozanne accused four Republican lawmakers of violating the law when they gathered on less than two hours’ notice to craft a legislative measure that was then passed by both houses and signed by Walker. In today’s decision, Sumi said the legislature could have remedied the violation by holding another meeting at a public location and giving proper notice.

‘Separation of Powers’

Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Walker, said in an e-mail that the governor’s office had no comment on the decision.

“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, the Republican senate majority leader and a defendant in the case, said in a prepared statement.

Fourteen Wisconsin Senate Democrats left the state Feb. 17 and spent more than three weeks in Illinois in an attempt to block the law by denying the chamber a quorum. Republicans were able to vote on collective bargaining after they stripped the bill of some fiscal measures allowing them by law to vote without the Democrats present.

‘Budget Repair’

“We look forward to the reforms of the budget repair bill being enacted in the near future,” Secretary Mike Huebsch of the Wisconsin Department of Administration said in a statement. The department coordinates the state budget. “We will continue to pursue legal action with the Supreme Court.”

Crowds of as many as 100,000 gathered at the Capitol in Madison to rally against Walker’s bill. The struggle incited protests across the U.S. and sparked debate about public-worker concessions as states face combined deficits that may reach $112 billion next fiscal year.

“We hope that the Supreme Court will consider the careful review conducted by Judge Sumi and support her conclusion,” Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said today in an e-mailed statement.

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

Unions Sue

Unions representing public works employees, firefighters and other public safety officers sued on March 25, claiming the state senate passed the legislation signed by Walker on March 11 without a constitutionally required quorum.

“The decision should be looked at as an opportunity to work together to find commonsense solutions to grow our economy and get our fiscal house in order -- not to tear our state apart, as Walker and his lockstep Legislature have chosen to do,” Mike Tate, the Wisconsin Democratic party chairman, said in a statement.

The state Justice Department yesterday asked Sumi to remove herself from the case because she filed a brief in connection with the request that the Supreme Court take jurisdiction in the dispute. Assistant Attorney General Steven Kilpatrick said in a letter to Sumi that her May 18 brief to the Supreme Court showed she could no longer be impartial.

Sumi Brief

In her brief, Sumi argued that she had the power to bar publication of the act -- which would give it power -- and void it based on the open-meetings law violation.

Because she had made no formal ruling before filing the brief, the arguments gave the appearance that she decided a pending case, Kilpatrick wrote.

When Sumi issued a temporary restraining order on the law in March, she said she couldn’t decide the case until the Republican legislators named in the lawsuit appeared in court. They claimed immunity from the civil action while the Legislature is in session. The session will end after the biennial budget is adopted on or before June. 30.

Marie Stanton, a lawyer for Sumi, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

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

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