Opponents decry bill as end-run around legal system
By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Attorneys would be able to nullify court rulings blocking state laws by filing a quick appeal under a bill Republican legislators are circulating.
The bill comes after Dane County judges last year struck down portions of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s signature law stripping most public workers of their collective bargaining rights and voided a GOP law mandating voters show photo identification at the polls. Opponents immediately decried the new bill as a Republican end-run around the legal system.
“When Republicans lose elections they want to change the rules about voting; when they lose in court they want to change the rules governing the courts,” said Lester Pines, the attorney who brought the collective bargaining and voter ID challenges. “They would be better off making sure that they pass constitutional laws in the first place.”
The bill’s main author, Rep. David Craig, R-West Bend, denied the collective bargaining and voter ID decisions prompted the bill. A county judge elected by “a small fraction of the state” shouldn’t be able to stop a law that affects the entire state, he said.
He also argued the bill would reduce confusion about whether a state law is in effect in the face of lawsuits challenging it. Confusion over whether the Dane County collective bargaining ruling applies statewide, for example, remains unresolved; Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is appealing both that ruling and the voter ID decision.
“For us to be able to conduct business in the state ... to know what the law is and what the law is not, there needs to be some type of stability,” Craig said.
The GOP has long contended Dane County judges are too liberal. Republicans have been working to limit the judges’ powers since the party took full control of state government in 2011.
They passed a law that year allowing people to challenge state agency rules in their home county or the county where the dispute arose rather than in Madison. They also tucked a clause into a bill overhauling the state’s mining regulations requiring people to file challenges to permitting decisions in the county where the mine would be located instead of Madison.
Stung by the union and voter ID rulings, Senate President Mike Ellis in February began circulating a bill that would require the state Supreme Court to take up constitutional challenges to state laws directly, removing lower courts from the process completely. A four-justice conservative majority currently controls the high court.
A message left at Ellis’ office Wednesday seeking an update on the bill’s status wasn’t immediately returned.
Under Craig’s bill, an attorney could stay a trial judge’s order blocking a state law from taking effect by filing an appeal to an appellate court or the state Supreme Court within 10 days. That automatic stay would remain in place until the appellate court or Supreme Court lifted it or disposed of the case through a final order. If an appellate court found the law invalid and lifted the stay, the losing side could reinstate it by asking the Supreme Court to take the case.
Craig and Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, sent an email to their fellow legislators on Wednesday searching for co-sponsors. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, supports the bill, spokeswoman Kit Beyer said.
“He agrees with the bill authors that one county judge should not make the decisions for an entire state,” Beyer said in an email to The Associated Press.
Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t immediately return a message. A Walker spokesman said only that the governor would review the bill if it got to his desk.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, accused Republicans of altering the balance of power between the Legislature and the judicial branch.
Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and now a Marquette University law professor, called the bill “an outrageous interference with the judicial process. (Judges are) the check and balance on the Legislature and the governor’s office that is critical to a democracy.”
Craig insisted the bill doesn’t curtail judges’ power. They could still issue injunctions, he said.
Ryan Owens, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science and law professor who specializes in separation of powers, said the Legislature can impose procedural requirements on judges.
“I don’t see this as an egregious affront to judicial independence,” he said. “This is the Legislature just trying to take some power back. That’s understandable. If it’s something the upper courts have a real problem with, they can just make a habit of re-imposing (the lower judges’) stay.”