A divided Supreme Court rejected challenges to a GOP-backed law that strips away collective bargaining rights.
MADISON, WIS. - The Wisconsin Supreme Court handed Republican Gov. Scott Walker a major victory Tuesday, ruling that a law that strips most public employees of their collective bargaining rights could take effect.
In a 4-3 decision that included a blistering dissent, the court ruled that Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi overstepped her authority when she declared the law void. Sumi had ruled that Republican lawmakers violated the state's open-meetings statutes in the run-up to passage of the union legislation.
The proposal sparked weeks of protests when Walker introduced it in February. Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the Capitol for weeks, and Democratic senators fled the state to prevent a vote, thrusting Wisconsin to the forefront of a national debate over labor rights.
Walker claimed the law, which also requires public employees to pay more for their health care and pensions, was needed to help address the state's $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to give local governments enough flexibility on labor costs to deal with deep cuts to state aid. Democrats saw it as an attack on public employee unions, which usually back their party's candidates.
In a one-sentence reaction to the ruling, Walker said: "The Supreme Court's ruling provides our state the opportunity to move forward together and focus on getting Wisconsin working again."
Legislative leaders had said they would have inserted the limits on collective bargaining into the state budget bill late Tuesday if the court hadn't acted by then.
Union leaders blasted the court's decision. Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, called it "an affront to our democracy."
An avalanche of lawsuits is expected, since legal challenges couldn't be brought until the law took effect.
Tuesday's ruling means the law is in effect, but it wasn't immediately clear when public employees would be affected. There are no plans to apply paycheck deductions retroactively, said Rep. Robin Vos, co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee; Walker's top aide, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, said the ruling was being reviewed.
'In the right direction'
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, both Republicans, said Tuesday they always believed the bill was legally approved.
"We followed the law when the bill was passed, simple as that," the Fitzgeralds, who are brothers, said in a joint statement. "We're finally headed in the right direction by balancing the budget and focusing on jobs, just like Republicans promised we would do."
Democratic Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who challenged the law after Republicans pushed through the legislation, said he was disappointed.
"We've done the best we can," he said. "It looks like we've lost."
All 14 of the state's Democratic senators fled to Illinois in February to try to prevent a vote on the legislation in the Senate, but Republicans got around the maneuver by convening a special committee to remove fiscal elements from the bill and allow a vote with fewer members present. Walker signed the plan into law two days later, on March 11.
Ozanne filed his lawsuit the next week, claiming Republicans didn't provide the proper public notice of the meeting in violation of state law. Sumi, who initially heard Ozanne's lawsuit, issued a temporary order blocking publication of the law while she weighed the arguments. Then last month, she declared the law void.
'The doors ... were kept open'
In vacating Sumi's ruling, the Supreme Court said she had "usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the legislature."
The court also rejected arguments that Republicans violated Wisconsin's open-meetings law. "The doors of the Senate and Assembly were kept open to the press and members of the public," the Supreme Court said. "Access was not denied."
In a fiery dissent, Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote that the majority decision was "hastily" reached and has unsupported conclusions. She said a concurring opinion written by Justice David Prosser, a former Republican speaker of the Assembly, was "long on rhetoric and long on story-telling that appears to have a partisan slant."
Abrahamson said the majority "set forth their own version of facts without evidence. They should not engage in this disinformation."
Attorneys for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, representing the Republicans who control the Legislature, had asked the Supreme Court to take the case directly, in part to speed the process.
Walker counted on the law being in effect in the budget he put forward for the fiscal year that starts July 1. He has said the public worker concessions would bring about $300 million in savings in the next two years.