Published March 18, 2011
A Wisconsin judge on Friday did what 14 fugitive Senate Democrats and tens of thousands of protesters failed to do over three weeks: block Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to plug a $137 million state budget shortfall in part by limiting the collective bargaining power of unionized state employees.
Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state's new and contentious collective bargaining law from taking effect, dealing a major setback to Walker and throwing the fate of the law into limbo.
Sumi's order was requested by that county's District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat. Ozanne filed a lawsuit contending that a legislative committee that broke a stalemate that had kept the law in limbo for weeks met without the 24-hour notice required by Wisconsin's open meetings law. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the measure and Walker signed it last week.
Secretary of State Doug La Follette planned to publish the law on March 25, but the judge's order will prevent that from happening, at least for now.
La Follette told Fox News he was not "totally surprised" by the judge's ruling.
"The open meetings law is a very clear and strong law, particularly here in Wisconsin, where we believe strongly in the public involvement in our process," he said. "And the special sessions argument, the judge didn't buy it. She said 'no, the open meetings law supersedes that. The public's right to be involved is more important.'"
Assistant Attorney General Steven Means said the state will appeal the ruling, but he didn't say when. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said in a statement that the governor was confident the bill would become law in the near future.
"This legislation is still working through the legal process," Werwie said.
Republicans Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Scott Fitzgerald blasted the ruling.
"Dane County always seems to play by its own rules, but this morning we saw a Dane County judge try to re-write the constitutional separation of powers," they said in a statement.
"We fully expect an appeals court will find that the Legislature followed the law perfectly and likely find that today's ruling was a significant overreach," they said. "We highly doubt a Dane County judge has the authority to tell the Legislature how to carry out its constitutional duty."
Democrats were hopeful the ruling would lead to the undoing of the law.
"I would hope the Republicans would take this as an opportunity to sit down with Democrats and negotiate a proposal we could all get behind," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of the 14 senators who stayed in Illinois for three weeks in an attempt to stop the bill from passing.
Part of the bill 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. Lawmakers are not scheduled to be in session again until April 5.
People opposed to the law converged on the state Capitol over the past month with massive demonstrations that went on for more than three weeks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.