A Dane County judge on Thursday issued a temporary injunction blocking a set of laws passed by Republican lawmakers late last year that stripped away some powers from Wisconsin's governor and attorney general.
The lawsuit, filed by the League of Women Voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and three Wisconsin voters, alleged the method by which the Legislature passed the bills — an extraordinary session — is unconstitutional, therefore rendering anything passed during the session invalid.
"Failing to enjoin the illegal actions of the Legislature would result in substantial changes to Wisconsin government, the administration of federal benefits and programs, election administration and transportation projects — all pursuant to laws that do not exist," wrote Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess in his ruling.
In addition to temporarily blocking enforcement of the laws, Niess rejected requests by Republican lawmakers to dismiss the case and to stay his injunction.
"There can be no justification for enforcement of the unconstitutional legislative actions emanating from the December 2018 'Extraordinary Session' that is consistent with the rule of law," Niess wrote.
Republican legislative leaders vowed to appeal the ruling.
The Legislature adopted a joint rule in 1977 allowing an extraordinary session to be called during a committee work period or after the expiration of the last scheduled floor period. Under the rule, an extraordinary session can be called by the Legislature and does not need the governor's approval.
The first extraordinary session in the Wisconsin Legislature was called in 1980, according to a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. In the extraordinary sessions that have followed, lawmakers have considered right-to-work legislation, open records laws, collective bargaining contracts, redistricting, the state budget, a constitutional amendment to allow a sports lottery and other issues.
Lawyers for the challengers argued there is no provision in the state constitution or in state law allowing the Legislature to convene in extraordinary session. Lawyers for the Republican lawmakers and argued that striking down the lame-duck laws would call into question the validity of any laws passed in a similar manner over the last 40 years.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said they will appeal the ruling.
"For decades the Legislature has used extraordinary sessions that have been widely supported by members of both parties," they said in a joint statement. "The most recent extraordinary session was held for Governor Evers’ Budget Address. Today’s ruling only creates chaos and will surely raise questions about items passed during previous extraordinary sessions, including stronger laws against child sexual predators and drunk drivers. We will appeal this ruling."
The laws, passed by the Legislature's Republican majority and signed by former Gov. Scott Walker before he left office, gave the Legislature more oversight and influence over some state agencies, limited the powers and scope of the attorney general's office and placed some restrictions on early voting and photo IDs used for voting.
"Today's ruling is a victory for the people of Wisconsin and for preserving the Wisconsin Constitution," said Gov. Tony Evers in a statement. "The Legislature overplayed its hand by using an unlawful process to accumulate more power for itself and override the will of the people, despite the outcome of last November's election. I look forward to putting this disappointing chapter behind us so we can move forward together to put the needs of the people of Wisconsin first."
Proponents of the legislation argued it was necessary to maintain a balance of power among each branch of state government, while opponents said it unfairly restricted the authority of the incoming Democratic administration.
A federal judge ruled in January in favor of One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin in a challenge against the provisions of the extraordinary session laws that reined in the availability of early voting and made adjustments to the state's photo ID voting requirement.
Another challenge, filed by unions last month, still remains.