Conservative justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court questioned a Madison judge's authority to block the state's polarizing union rights law as they listened Monday to arguments on whether they should rule in a lawsuit challenging the plan.
Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi ruled last month that Republican lawmakers violated Wisconsin's open meetings law when they met without proper public notice to revise Republican Gov. Scott Walker's bill stripping public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights.
State attorneys have asked the Supreme Court to step in, overturn Sumi's decision and declare the law in effect. They say the judge lacked the authority to insert herself into the legislative process and stop the law from taking effect.
Walker's proposal sparked weeks of protests. Tens of thousands of demonstrators toting bongo drums, amplifiers and camping gear occupied the state Capitol around the clock for nearly three weeks and Democratic state senators fled to Illinois in an attempt to block a vote on the bill. Republican lawmakers finally broke the stalemate by convening a special committee to remove the measure's fiscal elements, allowing it to pass with fewer senators present.
Justice Michael Gableman, a member of the court's conservative majority, peppered Sumi's attorney with questions about how the judge reconciled her order with prohibitions on legislating form the bench. Sumi's lawyer, Marie Stanton, replied that the Legislature invited the courts to intervene when it passed the open meetings law.
Gableman questioned the limits of a judge's authority in open meetings cases, asking whether a judge could go as far as preventing a legislator from introducing a bill.
"Where does it stop?" he asked.
Stanton replied that each case depends on its specific facts and stressed again that the open meetings statutes amount to an invitation from legislators to judges to participate in making laws.
"The Legislature bound itself," she said. "If the circuit court cannot stop this implementation, how is ... the Legislature's promise to abide by the open meetings law ... kept? Who enforces it?"
Justice Annette Ziegler, another member of the conservative bloc, blasted Sumi for issuing her ruling even though Sumi knew the Supreme Court had scheduled arguments on whether it should take the case. Stanton countered that Sumi had heard from every witness in the case and all the parties had submitted extensive briefs.
"But as a practical matter, a circuit judge should wait," Ziegler said.
Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John tried to lay out the state's claim that Sumi overstepped her bounds, saying the judge trampled the separation between the judicial and legislative branches and her ruling was harming the state every moment it was allowed to stand.
But Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, two members of the court's liberal faction, interrupted St. John repeatedly with relentless questions on technical legal matters. They refused to let him step down after his allotted 50 minutes to speak had elapsed, pushing the hearing past its scheduled two hours.
Along with limiting public workers' union rights, the law calls for them to contribute more to their health care and pensions. Walker pushed the measure to help balance at $3.6 billion deficit in the 2011-13 state budget. He said wiping out collective bargaining would help local governments save money so they could better absorb deep cuts in state aid.
The measure outraged Democrats, who said Republicans were really out to cripple the unions, one of Democrats' key constituencies.
Walker signed the bill on March 11. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit days later, alleging Republican leaders didn't provide enough public notice of the special committee meeting to satisfy Wisconsin's open meetings laws. Republicans have asked the state Supreme Court to take the case immediately, but Ozanne asked the justices Monday afternoon to allow it to follow the usual appeals process, saying that would provide a better record if the case eventually reaches the high court.
About 75 people packed the Supreme Court chambers on Monday. The arguments lasted all morning with no disruption from anyone in the audience. Shortly after noon, people singing "We Shall Overcome" in the Capitol rotunda could be heard through the doors.
Republicans are banking on the Supreme Court's conservative majority to back them up and reinstate the law. They're also contemplating inserting the changes directly into the budget, which would render the court battle moot.
That's partly because the clock is ticking. Walker's budget assumes millions of dollars in savings due to the collective bargaining changes. If the savings don't materialize, the state will face another big budget hole.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)