MADISON, Wisc.—A Wisconsin judge issued an order March 21 blocking the enforcement of laws the Republican-majority legislature enacted in a lame-duck “extraordinary session” last December to curb the power of the incoming Democratic governor. Republican legislators appealed the decision the next day.
The package of laws enacted prohibited the governor and the state attorney general from settling or withdrawing from litigation, authorized a legislative committee to suspend state agencies’ regulations unilaterally, and required legislative approval for any “guidance document” produced by the state, from the handbooks for driver’s license exams to materials explaining public employees’ health insurance. Speaking to LaborPress in February, American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin President Kim Kohlhaas called it “the ultimate sore-loser power grab.”
Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess held that those laws were invalid because the session that enacted them was convened illegitimately. “The bottom line in this case is that the Legislature did not lawfully meet during its December 2018 ‘Extraordinary Session’,” he wrote. Then-Gov. Scott Walker did not exercise his constitutional authority to call a special session, Niess noted, so it was convened “by a handful of legislators on two legislative committees.” Nothing in the law or the state constitution authorizes that, he said.
Niess’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and several civil-rights and disability-rights groups and activists. Several state labor unions, including SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, and AFT-Wisconsin, have filed a separate suit contending that the laws violate the state constitution’s separation-of-powers principles. A hearing on that suit is scheduled for March 25.
This ruling is a victory for working people throughout Wisconsin, who deserve to have the government that they chose during last year’s elections. — SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin President Ramon Argandona
“This ruling is a victory for working people throughout Wisconsin, who deserve to have the government that they chose during last year’s elections,” SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin President Ramon Argandona said in a statement. “Working people in Wisconsin sent a loud and clear message in November, and we’ve kept on fighting to make sure that our voices are truly heard.”
Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul immediately asked federal judges for permission to withdraw Wisconsin from two lawsuits by state governments challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Walker’s administration had joined them.
The Republican legislators’ appeal is seeking an emergency stay of Niess’s order. Lawyer Misha Tseytlin filed it with the District III Court of Appeals, in the more rural and right-wing northern third of the state. Two of its three judges are Walker appointees.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) issued a joint statement arguing that the state has enacted scores of laws in extraordinary sessions in the last four decades, and that Niess’s ruling could jeopardize “stronger laws against child sexual predators and drunk drivers.”
Judge Niess’s decision had rejected that argument, saying that it was irrelevant to the specific laws enacted in December. “Is there anything more destructive to Wisconsin’s constitutional democracy than for courts to abdicate their constitutional responsibility by knowingly enforcing unconstitutional and, therefore, nonexistent laws?” he wrote.