A Dane County judge late Friday struck down Wisconsin's controversial 2011 collective bargaining law because he said it violates the state and U.S. constitutional guarantees of free speech and freedom of association.
Ruling in a lawsuit brought by Madison Teachers Inc. and a union representing public workers in Milwaukee, Circuit Judge Juan B. Colas said in a 27-page decision that sections of the law "single out and encumber the rights of those employees who choose union membership and representation solely because of that association and therefore infringe upon the rights of free speech and association."
Colas also said that the law violates the constitutional equal protection clause by creating separate classes of state workers who are treated differently and unequally under the law.
The law, which was passed early last year in an atmosphere of almost constant protest that drew tens of thousands to the state Capitol, severely restricted the collective bargaining rights of most public workers in Wisconsin.
Madison lawyer Lester Pines, who represented MTI in court, said the decision means that for municipal workers, including teachers, who still have certified collective bargaining units, "their unions are back in business, for all business," including issues related to wages, hours and working conditions.
"I think Judge Colas did an excellent job analyzing cases and law, and I believe the decision will be upheld (on appeal)," Pines said.
"I'm ecstatic," said MTI President John Matthews.
"I've been doing this a little over 44 years, and this is the biggest news I've heard," Matthews said. "This restores that ability to have an equal voice in the workplace."
He said the court's decision takes the union back to January 2011, and now it doesn't have to worry about agreements expiring at the end of the school year. While it rolls back all of the rights the union previously had, the district has already taken WPS health insurance as a choice out of the collective bargaining agreement, and Matthews is not certain yet how that will be restored.
Cullen Werwie, spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker, said that the immediate ramifications of the ruling are not clear and that lawyers are still reviewing the decision.
But he added, "We are confident today's ruling will be overturned upon appeal."
In a statement, Walker called Colas a "liberal activist judge" who "wants to go backward and take away the lawmaking responsibilities of the Legislature and the governor."
"The people of Wisconsin clearly spoke on June 5," Walker said. "Now, they are ready to move on."
Pines ripped Walker's response, saying Walker and his allies "have no respect for the judiciary. The governor is attempting to systematically undermine respect for the courts," he said, by implying political bias.
He said Walker should simply admit he lost despite having law firm Michael Best & Friedrich defend the law at a cost of $500,000, but Walker "doesn't have the class to say 'maybe I did something wrong.'"
Democrats applauded the ruling. State Sen. Tim Cullen, of Janesville, said the law was only intended to destroy a political opponent, not balance the state budget. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca called the decision "a huge victory for Wisconsin workers and a huge victory for free speech," and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said he would be surprised if the decision were overturned.
Republicans joined Walker in criticizing the decision and Colas.
"It's no surprise that in the fantasy world of a judge in Dane County, he can substitute his will for the will of the people as expressed through the Legislature and the recall," state Rep. Robin Vos said.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman said going back to the original law "would be a disaster for schools."
Dana Brueck, spokeswoman for Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, whose office led the defense of the law, said the decision is under review and an appeal is certain.
In his decision, Colas disagreed with the unions' contention that the enactment of the law violated a constitutional clause limiting special legislative sessions and said the law does not violate the constitutional prohibition against taking a property interest without due process.
But he wrote that while collective bargaining is not a constitutional right, once the government has permitted it, "it may not make the surrender or restriction of a constitutional right a condition of that privilege."
He wrote that the law imposes burdens on employees' exercise of their right of free speech and association, limiting what local governments may offer union-represented employees and prohibiting them from paying dues by payroll deduction, "solely because the dues to go a labor organization."
"Conversely," he wrote, "employees who do not associate for collective bargaining are rewarded by being permitted to negotiate for and receive wages without limitation."
Colas also wrote that the law creates distinct classes of public workers who are represented by unions and those who are not. The law also prohibits payroll deduction for dues for general labor unions but allows dues deductions for public safety and transit unions.
"These classes are similarly situated and unequally treated," he wrote.
-- State Journal reporter Clay Barbour contributed to this report.