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Jimmy Anderson

Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg

Legal challenges are mounting against a set of laws passed by Republican lawmakers that stripped away some powers from Wisconsin's governor and attorney general.

The newest lawsuit, filed by the League of Women Voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and three Wisconsin voters, alleges the method by which the Legislature passed the bills — an extraordinary session — is unconstitutional, therefore rendering anything passed during the session invalid.

"The people of Wisconsin expect their elected officials to represent their interests transparently, and in a manner that respects the limits of the constitutional authority granted to them," said Erin Grunze, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, in a statement. "The adoption of and attempts to implement the legislation passed during the 'extraordinary session' are unconstitutional and fundamentally undermine our democracy."

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 argue there is no provision in the state constitution or in state law allowing the Legislature to convene in extraordinary session. 

"The text of the Wisconsin Constitution is unambiguous. The Legislature does not have the authority to convene itself in an ‘extraordinary session.’ Because the session was unconstitutional, all business conducted during the ‘extraordinary session’ is illegal and, therefore, void. Fidelity to the Constitution is a fundamental principle of law," said lead attorney Jeffrey A. Mandell in a statement.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters there is "absolutely, positively no doubt that what the Legislature did is constitutional, because we have the right to convene ourselves in an extraordinary session."

"(Evers') goal obviously is to get his liberal allies to do his bidding. That's what it seems like to me," Vos said of the lawsuit. 

Republican leaders also pushed back against a challenge from Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, alleging the session broke the state's open meetings law. 

Votes on the bills came after hours of delays that kept lawmakers in the Capitol overnight as Republicans worked behind closed doors to strike agreements on the proposals. The Senate was originally scheduled to convene at 11 a.m. Tuesday, with the Assembly following at 1 p.m. Both chambers met briefly at several points throughout the night, but did not return in earnest until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

Anderson, who is paralyzed from the chest down and uses a wheelchair, filed a complaint with Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne requesting that Ozanne sue Assembly GOP leaders and seek to have the lame-duck laws voided.

State law dictates that "no duly elected or appointed member of a governmental body may be excluded from any meeting of such body." 

Anderson said he is medically advised against more than 16 hours at a time in his wheelchair, and in addition to that limit, he has to coordinate his arrival and departure from the Capitol with home health aides who require advance notice of his schedule.

He told reporters he had been hesitant to raise the issue publicly because he doesn't want to be defined as "the wheelchair legislator," but eventually decided it was important he speak up about the issues people with disabilities face. 

"Republican leadership took advantage of the process and my disability to exclude me from participating in the extraordinary session," Anderson said.

Anderson said he had asked Republican leaders when they expected to start the session, but wasn't given an answer. He said he left for the night around 10 p.m. and was not given adequate notice to be able to return to the Capitol for the early-morning vote. 

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said Assembly leaders and staff have made accommodations for Anderson every time he's asked. He noted that Anderson is allowed to have a personal aide sit with him on the Assembly floor and was given an aisle seat so he could easily access his desk. Modifications were also made to Anderson's microphone and voting buttons so he can participate in debates and votes, Steineke said.

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Steineke said Anderson never made it clear what he needed during the extraordinary session. He provided reporters with a text message exchange in which Anderson asked at 5:27 p.m., "Not to be a pest but I need to let my personal assistant know when she should expect to be done tonight. Any news on your eta?" and Steineke replied, "It's fluid right now. Hoping to come to the floor soon."

"Obviously given our track record of making these accommodations, I think we would have. In fact, I'm sure we would have (accommodated him)," Steineke said. "There are all sorts of things that if he had asked, we could have done to accommodate him. The fact is he just never asked." 

Anderson said GOP leaders have traditionally accommodated his disability. 

Asked about Steineke's response, Anderson said he sat down with Republican leadership at the start of his first session to let them know what he would need in order to fully participate as a legislator, including his wheelchair time constraints. When a session ran too long for him to stay in the Capitol, he said he reminded members of the Republican and Democratic leadership teams of his needs.

"I don't know in what world they would think that holding a session 14 hours delayed and giving people 10 minutes' notice to be here is reasonable," Anderson said. "And to think that as the individual who is disabled, I have to sit there and try to explain every single little piece of my life to make sure they can properly accommodate me, I think, is a little ridiculous."

Anderson said he would have needed about five hours' notice to line up a personal aide to drive him back to the Capitol.

Tom Kamenick, deputy counsel for the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, noted that the state Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the state Legislature is not bound by the state's open meetings law. 

"I’m not aware of any cases or interpretations of open meetings law holding that a session can be 'too long' such that it excludes somebody," Kamenick said in a statement.

The two new challenges follow a request made last month by One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin for a federal judge to halt provisions of the extraordinary session laws that rein in the availability of early voting and make adjustments to the state's photo ID voting requirement.

The groups argued the lame-duck laws violate a 2016 ruling in which they successfully struck down some limits on early voting and some provisions of the state's voter ID requirements. 

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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.