For the past month, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his legislative allies have rolled roughshod over the lawmaking process in Wisconsin. Walker, acting more as a monarch than an elected representative of the people, has sought to restructure state government so that he has the authority make unilateral decisions regarding the pay and working conditions of all public employees in Wisconsin, the power to define who can and cannot obtain medical coverage under the Badgercare and Seniorcare programs and what public properties will be bartered off in no-bid deals to his campaign contributors.
Unfortunately, the brother-act that leads the legislature—Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald—has failed to check and balance Walker’s imperial excess. The Fitzgeralds have operated as extensions of the governor’s office, doing Walker’s bidding even as he has demanded the unreasonable. Debates have been constrained, votes have been rushed (one was kept open just seventeen seconds), open meetings laws have been violated, constitutional requirements have been disregarded, threats have been directed at dissenting legislators. The “process,” if it can be called that, has degenerated into little more than a rubberstamping party, with the Fitzgeralds directing the Assembly and Senate—as overlords, rather than leaders—to bow to the governor’s every whim.
It’s gotten so bad that the senior member of the legislature, former state Senate President Fred Risser, D-Madison, has described Walker’s actions as “dictatorial.” State Representative Mark Pocan, the former co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, simply describes the state as “Fitzwalkerstan.”
And if Wisconsin only had two branches of government, the state would be in sorry shape.
That’s what happened Friday, March 18, when Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi reminded the governor that there are three branches of government.
Judge Sumi issued a temporary restraining order, which prevented Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug LaFollette from publishing Walker’s power-grab law—which has at its core a plan to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of their collective bargaining rights—until she has been able to review the case made by Dane County officials that the legislature passed the measure without following open-meetings laws.
Indeed, Judge Sumi indicated that there was a very good chance that Ozanne’s argument about the need to obey the open meetings laws requirements regarding notification of legislators and citizens—and acting in a transparent and responsible manner when debating and voting on legislation—was likely to succeed on its merits.
“It seems to me the public policy behind effective enforcement of the open meeting law is so strong that it does outweigh the interest, at least at this time, which may exist in favor of sustaining the validity of the [law],” wrote Judge Sumi.
Of course, Walker’s minions are crying foul. The governor’s circle is so determined to move forward with this power grab that they are inclined to attack anyone who gets in the way.
But their criticisms of Judge Sumi won’t get far. She was appointed to the Dane County Bench by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and earned such high marks from the whole of the legal community that her elections and re-elections to the court have been broadly encouraged by all sides.
The governor is going to be tripped up again and again by Wisconsin jurists, who recognize their role as independent guardians of the constitution and the rule of law.
The role of the courts in restoring a system of checks and balances to Wisconsin highlights the importance of the April 5 state Supreme Court race. The highly politicized incumbent, Justice David Prosser, began his campaign with a declaration that he was determined to serve as an activist allied with Walker and his legislative allies. Prosser has since tried to back away from that appeal; however, his partisanship has so unsettled Wisconsinites who respect the judiciary that there is now broad support for a challenge to him by Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, an old-school nonpartisan who has worked with two Republican attorneys general and two Democrats.
Scott Walker may not like it, but Wisconsin has three branches of government and a system of checks and balances. The judicial branch checked him on Friday, and Wisconsinites are well aware of the value of such interventions. Because we have an elected judiciary, the power to maintain necessary restraints on the powerful is rested with the people. And if there ever was a time when it is likely that voters will act to maintain judicial independence and integrity—of the sort Judge Sumi displayed and JoAnne Kloppenburg promises to maintain—it’s now.