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Republican Legislature sues Wisconsin AG Josh Kaul over compliance with lame-duck laws

Republican Legislature sues Wisconsin AG Josh Kaul over compliance with lame-duck laws

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Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, left, and Gov. Tony Evers, right. 

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature is arguing Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul has failed to comply with parts of the lame-duck laws that target his authority as attorney general in the first suit brought by Republicans surrounding the December session. 

The brief, filed with the state Supreme Court Thursday, argues Kaul is narrowly interpreting the law and refusing to give lawmakers the ability to review some of his legal decisions, thus denying their “right to a seat at the table.” 

His actions, the filing argues, also include “unlawfully seizing large sums of money that belong to the people of this State” by not depositing settlement funds to the state’s general fund. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, in a statement slammed Kaul for “taking an unrealistic view of the law and refusing to comply with previous court rulings.”

“It is egregious that Attorney General Kaul is playing a game of political keep away with potentially up to $20 million in funds that belong to hard-working Wisconsinites,” they said. 

Kaul countered the filing was a legislative attempt “to use vague and poorly-written statutory language to substantially cut the budget for the Department of Justice, undermining public safety in Wisconsin.” 

“The Legislature is wrong on the law and it is simply incorrect that the Department of Justice has not attempted to involve the Joint Committee on Finance in the resolution of certain cases,” he added in a statement. 

Under the December extraordinary session laws, the attorney general is required to deposit all settlement money into the state's general fund, in addition to compelling that any civil suits entered into by the Department of Justice could only be settled or discontinued with legislative approval, among other things. 

The Legislature in its brief argued the state Supreme Court should act swiftly to resolve the issue because “the Attorney General has made clear that he will continue to settle cases without giving the Legislature its statutory seat at the table, and will continue to retain large sums of money for his own use, when that money rightfully belongs to the people.” 

The suit, the fifth legal challenge to the extraordinary session laws and the first brought by Republicans, was filed separately from an existing challenge to the lame-duck laws. That case, brought by five unions, alleges the extraordinary session unlawfully limited the powers of the incoming attorney general and governor. 

In that case, a Dane County judge this spring initially blocked some parts of the laws, including portions governing guidance documents and Kaul’s authority as attorney general. But the state Supreme Court took over the case and reinstated most of those provisions

Oral arguments in the unions’ case are scheduled for Oct. 21. The Legislature in its brief gave the court the option to consolidate the new motion with the original case. 

Thursday’s filing comes after Kaul outlined his narrowed interpretations of those sections of the law in a letter to the Legislature’s budget committee co-chairs, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, in mid-June, according to the filing.  

In the letter, Kaul wrote the language wouldn’t apply certain instances, such as a “pre-suit resolution of disputes,” and his decisions to dismiss an appeal or not take one, according to the court documents. He added he wouldn’t seek legislative approval for cases he believed were outside the scope of his implementation of the law’s provisions. 

In terms of settlement funds, the document also stated that Kaul was choosing to interpret the law so that the requirement to deposit the dollars into the general fund only pertains to certain cases. 

The co-chairs pushed back in a follow-up letter a few days later, which led to a series of back-and-forth correspondences between the pair and Kaul over the next month, according to the filing. 

Of the other challenges to the extraordinary session laws, the state Supreme Court in June notably ruled to uphold the laws in a case brought by the League of Women Voters and other groups that argued the session wasn't lawfully convened under the state's Constitution. 

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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