Judge blocks Wisconsin collective-bargaining law

A county judge temporarily blocks the Wisconsin collective-bargaining law, pending further inquiry into whether the law was passed in accordance with the Legislature’s rules.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted March 18, 2011 at 7:47 pm EDT

Chicago – A county circuit court judge on Friday temporarily blocked the controversial Wisconsin collective-bargaining law from taking effect, extending for at least two weeks the saga that began when some Democratic lawmakers fled the state in protest against the bill a month ago.

At issue is the method Senate Republicans used to push through the bill, which eliminates collective-bargaining rights for all non-law-enforcement state workers. In a complaint, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said the senators violated legislative rules by forming a special committee, stripping the collective-bargaining bill of its fiscal obligations, and then passing it – all in the same day.

Mr. Ozanne said the senators needed to give 24 hours notice about the meeting in accordance with state open-meetings law. The senators have responded that because this was during a special session of the Legislature, they were exempt from the 24-hour requirement.

Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi granted the restraining order requested by Ozanne, saying that time was needed to review the manner in which the law was passed. “It’s not a minor detail … the open meetings law exists to ensure open government in controversial matters,” she said.

The next hearing on the case is March 29, four days after the bill was scheduled for publication by the secretary of state.

In her ruling Friday, Judge Sumi appeared to endorse Ozanne’s complaint. “It seems to me the public policy behind effective enforcement of the open meeting law is so strong that it does outweigh the interest, at least at this time … of sustaining the validity of the [bill],” she said.

How Republicans will respond

The ruling was criticized by the state’s attorney general’s office, which said it would appeal the ruling to a higher court. Assistant Attorney General Steven Means told Wisconsin Politics, an online media outlet that covers state politics: “The reason they have appellate courts is because circuit court judges make errors, and that happened in this case.”

In a statement, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said previous decisions by the Wisconsin Supreme Court “made it clear that judges may not enjoin” a bill from being published that was already signed into law – even when a claim says a law “as important as the open meeting law has been violated.”

The matter of jurisdiction is likely to become an issue. The attorney general’s claims that the county does not have jurisdiction are “very debatable,” says Dennis Dresang, a political scientist at University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The attorney general will try to get an appeals court to temporarily lift the injunction so the bill will become law, but that will likely prove impossible considering they will need to prove that pausing the bill from becoming law immediately will cause harm, Mr. Dresang says. He contends the opposite is true: By rushing the bill into law, state legislators harmed local governments and school districts that may have been in the midst of negotiating with their respective unions in an attempt to lock in contract obligations for the next two years.

“Part of the impact of this is that it was rushed so much, local governments who were in the process of negotiating were told all the sudden that – boom – they can’t proceed,” he says.

Back to Square 1 for Republicans?

Although Friday’s ruling is considered a setback for state Republicans, Sumi made it clear they can act on the bill a second time. With all 14 Democrats back in the state, reaching a quorum is once again possible, making a do-over advantageous for Republicans. But some senate Democrats have said that if the bill was called for a vote, they would once again leave the state, while others indicated they would stay to try to change the bill to make it more amenable to their constituents.

“I would hope that the Republicans would take this opportunity to sit down with Democrats to try to work out a compromise that we can all get behind. It is time to show the world we can work together,” said State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D) in a statement released Friday.

Legislators on both sides are facing multiple recall campaigns, resulting from the debate over the bill, which at one time drew hundreds of thousands of protesters to Madison as well as international media attention.

So far, the state’s Republican leadership has been quiet about what next steps they plan to make. In an e-mail sent to Wisconsin Politics Friday, Walker spokesperson Cullen Werwie suggested they are monitoring the what happens next in court.

“This legislation is still working through the legal process…. We are confident the provisions of the budget repair bill will become law in the near future,” Mr. Werwie said.

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