Court blocks contentious Wis. union law

Friday, March 18, 2011

MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin judge issued a temporary restraining order today blocking the state’s new and contentious collective bargaining law from taking effect, raising the possibility that the Legislature may have to vote again to pass the bill.

Lawmakers had passed Gov. Scott Walker’s measure last week, breaking a three-week stalemate caused by 14 Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois. Demonstrations against the measure, which would strip most public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights, grew as large as 85,000 people.

Dane County District Judge Maryann Sumi granted the order in response to a lawsuit filed by the local Democratic district attorney alleging that Republican lawmakers violated the state’s open-meetings law by hastily convening a special committee before the Senate passed the bill.

Sumi said her ruling would not prevent the Legislature from reconvening the committee with proper notice and passing the bill again.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie would not comment on whether the governor would push to call the Legislature back to pass the bill again, either in its current form or with any changes.

The Senate couldn’t pass the bill in its original form without at least one Democrat to meet a 20-member quorum requirement for measures that spend money. With the Democrats in Illinois and refusing to return after three weeks away, Republicans convened a special committee March 9 to remove the spending items. The bill then passed with no Democrats present.

That move is being challenged in another lawsuit brought by Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who argues the bill as passed still should have required the 20-member quorum. The same judge that issued the temporary restraining order was taking testimony today in that case but has said she would not issue a ruling on today.

Assistant Attorney General Steve Means said the Justice Department planned to appeal the ruling. Since Sumi’s order isn’t final, the agency must secure permission from the state court of appeals before it can bring a case, Means said. Agency attorneys planned to make the request later today or perhaps early next week, Means said.

If the agency wins permission, it can pursue an appeal with the state appeals court or try to get the state Supreme Court to hear the case.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed the lawsuit this week alleging the open-meetings law was violated because 24 hours’ notice wasn’t given for a meeting of the special legislative committee convened to amend the bill.

Justice Department attorneys argued that notice on a bulletin board posted about two hours before the committee meeting was to start March 9 was sufficient under rules of the Senate.

The judge said DOJ couldn’t show the committee was exempt from the 24-hour notice requirement. She said Ozanne could ultimately win the case and ordered Secretary of State Doug La Follette to hold off on publishing the law — the last step before it can take effect. La Follette had planned to publish the law on March 25.

The bill was part of Walker’s solution for plugging a $137 million state budget shortfall. A part of the measure would require state workers to increase their health insurance and pension contributions to save the state $30 million by July 1. Other parts of Walker’s original proposal to address the budget shortfall were removed before the bill passed last week. The Legislature planned to take those up later.

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