Bloomberg News

Wisconsin High Court Rejects Ruling That Invalidated Union Law

June 15, 2011

June 15 (Bloomberg) -- Wisconsin’s Supreme Court rejected a county judge’s ruling invalidating a measure backed by Governor Scott Walker that curbed public employees’ collective-bargaining rights.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi exceeded her authority when she issued a May 26 order invalidating the legislation, the high court ruled yesterday. The judge had ruled the measure was created in apparent violation of the state’s open meetings law.

The Supreme Court’s justices invoked “original jurisdiction” over the dispute because “one of the courts that we are charged with supervising has usurped the legislative power.”

A first-term Republican, Walker signed the legislation on March 11. It requires annual recertification votes for public employees’ union representation and makes their payment of membership 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.

Democrats and organized labor opposed the legislation as an attack on worker rights. Opponents protested inside and outside the state capitol for almost four weeks.

‘Move Forward’

“The Supreme Court’s ruling provides our state the opportunity to move forward together and focus on getting Wisconsin working again,” Walker said in a statement.

The challenge to the law’s legitimacy was filed in March by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. The state capital, Madison, is also the Dane County seat.

He claimed the bill had been drafted by a conference committee of six legislators who gave less than two hours’ public notice of the hearing rather than the required 24.

Four of those legislators were Republicans, including state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assemblyman Jeff Fitzgerald. Only one of the two Democratic legislators, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, participated in the March 9 meeting, and he did so under protest.

Temporary Order

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked the top court to take over the case and dismiss it on April 7 after Sumi issued a temporary order blocking its implementation.

The high court yesterday said the legislature hadn’t violated the state’s constitution in drafting the measure or in voting to enact it.

Its ruling included a nine-page order, backed by the concurring opinion of Justice David Prosser who, last month, was declared the winner of a disputed April 5 election.

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson dissented in part, joined by justices Ann Walsh Bradley and N. Patrick Crooks.

The four-judge majority, Prosser said, agreed that Sumi exceeded her authority when she prohibited publication of the act, the last step required to give it force and effect.

“This is not a close question,” he said.

Prosser also said there had been no constitutional violation.

Abrahamson, while agreeing with Prosser the importance of the issue before the court, disagreed with the majority’s method and conclusions.

‘Must Abide’

“Each person must abide by the law. Each branch of government must abide by the law,” she said. “This court must ensure that the law governing judicial rulemaking is followed.”

Kevin St. John, an assistant attorney general, had told the court on June 6 that Sumi breached the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.

“This court should act now to restore the balance of power,” St. John said. “The legislature has the exclusive right to determine its process.”

Ozanne that day told the court it should reject the attorney general’s request that it take control of the matter.

“The clear violation from my standpoint is that they did not give 24 hours’ notice,” the prosecutor said. “I don’t think that is in dispute.”

While legislators can give just two hours’ notice if there is good cause, the defendants here didn’t give that minimum notice either, he said.

Ozanne, a Democrat, didn’t immediately reply to an e-mailed request for comment. Phone calls to his office went unanswered.

‘Shocked’

Barca, in an e-mailed statement, said he was “shocked” by the ruling.

“I had hoped the Supreme Court would recognize the importance of our open government tradition and the necessity of public participation in a democracy,” he said.

The cases are State, ex-rel Ozanne v. Fitzgerald, 2011AP613; and State v. Circuit Court for Dane County, 2011AP765, Wisconsin Supreme Court (Madison).

--With assistance from Mark Niquette in Columbus, Ohio. Editors: Mary Romano, Stephen Farr

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew Harris in Chicago at aharris16@bloomberg.net; Marie Rohde in Milwaukee at fmarierohde@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.


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