A Dane County judge Monday put off a decision on blocking a set of laws passed in December that curtailed some of the governor’s and attorney general’s powers.
But a ruling from Judge Richard Niess could come within days following a hearing that featured more than two hours of oral arguments between the parties on whether the Legislature acted within its authority when it passed those laws.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Disability Rights Wisconsin and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, among others, brought the case. It argues that the so-called lame-duck laws, passed after the November election, are invalid because the Legislature supposedly didn’t have the authority to convene when it passed them because its regular session had ended months earlier.
Among other things, the laws prevent the governor and attorney general from withdrawing from or settling lawsuits without the Legislature’s permission, changing the makeup of Wisconsin’s economic development agency and suspending the governor’s authority to appoint the agency’s CEO for nine months.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul decided not to participate in the case because of the department’s perceived conflict of interest. The League of Women Voters case is one of several brought by various groups against the Republican laws. Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now challenged the law’s early-voting restrictions in federal court, and a U.S. District judge struck them down earlier this year.
Meanwhile, a group of five unions filed a suit in state court arguing the laws violate the separation of powers. Another lawsuit brought in federal court by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin challenges the laws by contending they violate the Constitution’s free speech and equal protection guarantees.
During the hearing’s arguments, attorneys argued the Legislature illegally convened and legislative leaders committed an abuse of power in convening the session. In their court filings, they argue that neither the state Constitution nor any statute gives the Legislature the right to convene in extraordinary session.
But attorney Misha Tseytlin, arguing on behalf of the Republican-controlled Legislature, contended that the Legislature is in a continuous two-year session and the laws are thus legal.
Tseytlin said if a judge ruled against the Legislature, it would deem a swath of laws and decisions that occurred as a result of previous extraordinary sessions unconstitutional. Such actions include the constitutional terms of district attorneys and sheriffs, and as a result, criminal convictions they have won, he said.
“So you’re saying if I rule against you I’m opening the prison doors?” Judge Niess asked.
“I really don’t see how you don’t,” Tseytlin replied.
Other laws passed in extraordinary sessions include penalties for child sex offenders and public funding for Fiserv Forum, the new Milwaukee Bucks arena.
Jeffrey Mandell, an attorney for the groups challenging the lame-duck laws, however, shot back, arguing the Legislature never intended to meet in continuous session. He rejected Tseytlin’s contention that a ruling against the Legislature would affect all laws passed in extraordinary session because a court could limit the applicability of the ruling.