When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature panicked in the face of mass demonstrations opposing their attempt to strip state, county and municipal employees and public school teachers of their collective bargaining rights, they hurriedly called a legislative conference committee and then the state Senate into action and passed a version of the law. The Republicans wanted to act quickly, on a cold night when Democratic senators were outside the Capitol and the crowds were at home. But they neglected to honor the most basic principle of open government in a state that has prided itself for its commitment to transparency: the people are their representatives must be given proper notice when the legislature is in session and acting on matters of general concern.
That failure to respect not just the state’s Open Meetings law but the state’s historic commitment to open and honest governance tripped Walker and his compatriots up.
They did not pass their law honorably or appropriately. And that has led one of the state’s most respected jurists to rule that the collective bargaining bill the governor signed in early March is null and void.
Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi, who two months ago issued a restraining order that blocked implementation of the law, on Thursday ruled that Republican lawmakers committed a “clear and convincing” violation of the state’s Open Meetings law when they rushing the measure to the governor’s desk.
“This case is the exemplar of values protected by the Open Meetings Law: transparency in government, the right of citizens to participate in their government, and respect for the rule of law,” wrote Sumi in a blunt and unequivocal ruling. “It is not the court’s business to determine whether 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 is good public policy or bad public policy; that is the business of the Legislature. It is this court’s responsibility, however, to apply the rule of law to the facts before it.”
Assembly minority leader Peter Barca, the Democrat who objected to the rush to pass the legislation in March, hailed Thursday’s ruling, declaring that, “When the state Legislature is meeting, the people of Wisconsin should always have a seat at the table.”
The judge’s decision adds the latest twist to the ongoing Wisconsin controversy, which has produced the largest pro-labor demonstrations in recent American history, recall drives that could see many of the legislators who backed the governor’s agenda removed from office and intense legal and legislative wrangling.
That wrangling is not done.
The state Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments June 6 on whether it should consider an appeal of Sumi’s restraining order. But that process is complicated by the fact that the April 5 election for the swing seat on the closely divided court remains unresolved following a close initial result, a recount and a possible legal action challenging the seating of the conservative jurist and Walker ally Justice David Prosser, who came out of the recount with a lead of roughly 7,000 votes.