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Tony Evers discusses Niess ruling

Gov. Tony Evers told reporters on Thursday that he is looking at "every opportunity" related to Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess' decision to temporarily block a set of laws passed in a lame-duck extraordinary session late last year, but despite Republican lawmakers' plans to appeal the ruling, Evers said he doesn't feel a sense of immediacy.

Within hours of a judge's ruling temporarily restoring powers stripped by Republican lawmakers from Wisconsin's governor and attorney general, AG Josh Kaul moved to withdraw the state from a multi-state lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. But Gov. Tony Evers said he's not rushing to take additional actions allowed by the decision.

Evers told reporters on Thursday that he is looking at "every opportunity" related to Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess' decision to temporarily block a set of laws passed in a lame-duck extraordinary session late last year, but despite Republican lawmakers' plans to appeal the ruling, Evers said he doesn't feel a sense of immediacy.

The governor said he will move forward "not with speed, but with thoughtfulness."

"Clearly we don’t view this as a 'window of opportunity.' We think we’re right on the issues and the judge made it very clear that the constitution counts for something in this state," Evers said. "We’re going to move forward with due speed, but we have to have an opportunity to digest this."

Niess ruled Thursday morning that the laws passed by the Legislature's Republican majority in December violated the state's constitution. 

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 — was unconstitutional, therefore rendering anything passed during the session invalid.

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, while lawyers for the Republican lawmakers 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.

The lame-duck laws, 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. The laws prevented Evers and Kaul from fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from the Obamacare lawsuit by requiring legislative approval to do so, and prevented Evers from appointing a new CEO to the state's economic development agency.

Evers said he has "no immediate plans" to make any changes to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Lawmakers also approved 82 appointments made by Walker, all of which were vacated by Thursday's ruling.

"The appointments are important. Obviously they were important to the former governor or he wouldn't have done it at the last minute," Evers said. "So we look forward to reviewing the judge's decision and also making a decision about those appointments."

Proponents of the extraordinary session 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.

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Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, pledged to appeal the ruling.

"For decades the Legislature has used extraordinary sessions that have been widely supported by members of both parties," the lawmakers said in a 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."

Evers dismissed their argument, noting that Niess stipulated in his ruling that it it was "expressly limited" to the laws enacted in the December extraordinary session. 

In addition to temporarily blocking enforcement of the laws, Niess rejected requests by Republican lawmakers to dismiss the case and to stay his injunction.

"We contended all along that the will of the people had been messed with by the … extraordinary session, and I’m happy that it reached this point," Evers said.

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.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.