MADISON, Wis. – The fight over stripping collective bargaining rights from Wisconsin's public workers will move into the state Supreme Court, and possibly back into the Legislature, after a judge ruled Thursday to strike down the law that passed despite massive protests that paralyzed the Capitol.
Republican backers of Gov. Scott Walker's proposal said they were confident the state Supreme Court would overturn the judge's ruling that the law is void because lawmakers broke open meetings statutes during the approval process. She had temporarily blocked the law shortly after it passed in March.
The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in the case on June 6. Republicans who control the Legislature also could pass the measure a second time to avoid the open meeting violations.
Still, Democrats and union leaders who helped organize protests against the measure that grew to as large as 85,000 people praised the victory, even if it could be fleeting.
"It tells legislators 'You can't be arrogant,'" said Marty Beil, executive director of the state's largest public employee union. "You have to do it in the light of day. You can't take stuff away from people in a backroom deal."
Mary Bell, president of the state's largest teachers' union, said she hoped the judge's ruling would lead to lawmakers reconsidering passing the law again.
"It is not in the best interest of students, schools or Wisconsin's future to take the voices of educators out of our classrooms," Bell said in a statement. "We've seen how this issue has polarized our state."
The last time the Legislature took up the issue, tens of thousands of protesters, including many teachers, descended on Madison in a futile attempt to persuade lawmakers to reject the proposal. The protests lasted for weeks and made Wisconsin the center of a national debate on union rights. Meanwhile, all 14 Democratic senators fled to Illinois to prevent a 20-member quorum to pass the bill. Senate Republicans eventually called a special committee meeting with roughly two hours' notice so it could amend the bill to take out spending items to avoid the quorum requirement.
Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi noted in her ruling Thursday that the open meetings law typically calls for 24-hours' notice of meetings, or, in cases with just cause, two hours. Sumi said nothing justified such short notice and declared the law void.
"Our form of government depends on citizens' trust and confidence in the process by which our elected officials make laws, at all levels of government," she wrote.
The Legislature's budget committee's Republican co-chairs reacted by labeling Sumi an "activist" judge. Sumi was appointed to the bench by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Walker pushed for the law as a way to help balance the state budget that was projected to be $3.6 billion short when he introduced the proposal in February. Walker was counting on the savings to help blunt the impact of more than $1 billion in aid cuts to schools and local governments he's calling for in his budget, which could be ready to be debated in the Senate and Assembly in mid-June.
Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor would have no comment. Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he would discuss his options with the state's attorneys, but whether there's an attempt to pass the bill again in the Legislature will depend largely on what the Supreme Court does.
Wisconsin Department of Justice executive assistant Steve Means said Sumi's ruling was disappointing and that he was confident the Supreme Court would overturn the decision. The Justice Department argued that the lower court judge had no authority to block enactment of a bill passed by the Legislature.
Ismael Ozanne, the Dane County district attorney who argued for striking down the law, said he was now focused on preparing for the Supreme Court arguments.
On Wednesday, the day before the ruling, the Justice Department sent Sumi a letter urging her to consider recusing because she appears biased against the Republicans. The agency pointed to a brief she filed with the Supreme Court outlining her belief that she has the authority to void a law if the open meetings law was violated during its passage, saying she shouldn't have set out her position before she issued a decision.
A message left at Sumi's chambers Thursday wasn't immediately returned.
The collective bargaining law called for public workers at all levels, from janitors at the state Capitol to local librarians, to contribute more to their pension and health care costs, resulting in savings to the state of $300 million through mid-2013. The law also strips them of their right to collectively bargain any work conditions except wages. Police and firefighters are exempt.
Associated Press writer Jason Smathers contributed to this report.