The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday decided it would take over the appeal in a second case challenging lame-duck laws passed by Republicans in December, bypassing a state Appeals Court.
The state’s highest court in a split decision opted to take up the appeal of the case voluntarily, without a motion from any of the parties involved, a relatively rare move.
In the case, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, other unions and state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Mason, are challenging several laws passed by Republicans in December that undermine some of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul’s powers. The complaint contends, in part, that parts of the GOP laws violate the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.
It’s the second time this week that the high court took up a case involving the lame-duck laws. On Monday, the court in a separate case granted the plaintiffs — the League of Women Voters, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and Disability Rights Wisconsin, among others — their request to circumvent the state Court of Appeals and set up a swift timeline scheduling oral arguments in one month.
In the appeal of the SEIU case the court took up Friday, Dane County Judge Frank D. Remington in March had halted enforcement of a key provision of one of the laws that prevents the state attorney general from ending or settling, at the governor’s direction, the state’s involvement in a lawsuit. It also suspended measures that hamper the governor’s ability to advance administrative rules and other documents.
The ruling rejected the plaintiffs’ request to halt other provisions of the laws. The state Legislature immediately appealed the ruling, asking the appeals court to strike down Remington’s decision temporarily suspending parts of the lame-duck laws. The case is still ongoing in Dane County Circuit Court, which has yet to issue a final ruling.
On Friday, the state’s conservative-supported justices decided to take control of the case because “the interests of the state would be best served by the appeal bypassing the court of appeals.”
Meanwhile, the state’s three liberal-backed justices dissented, arguing the appeal should move forward in the state appeals court first.
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“This court should not reach down and assume jurisdiction of the appeal without giving the parties notice and an opportunity to be heard,” the dissent stated.
The four cases challenging the GOP’s lame-duck legislation have thrown state government into disarray in recent months. In light of court rulings temporarily suspending the lame-duck laws, Evers and Kaul withdrew the state from a contentious lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, something the lame-duck laws had prevented them from doing.
Evers also incensed Republicans by rescinding 15 board appointments made by his Republican predecessor, about two weeks after a Dane County Circuit judge in the League of Women Voters case ruled they were confirmed illegally during December’s extraordinary session. A state appeals court ruled Evers was within his authority to rescind the appointments while the lame-duck laws were temporarily suspended.
The appointments include Ellen Nowak, who served on the Public Service Commission, and Scott Beightol, former Gov. Scott Walker’s pick for the UW System Board of Regents. Nowak formerly served as the secretary of the powerful Department of Administration under Walker. The 15 appointees could get their jobs back if the courts rule in the Legislature’s favor.
Attorneys for the League of Women Voters argued the Legislature illegally convened in extraordinary session in December and legislative leaders committed an abuse of power. GOP legislative leaders convened the extraordinary session under a process set forth in the Legislature’s internal rules. After Dane County Judge Richard Niess temporarily suspended the lame-duck laws in March, a state Appeals Court shortly after effectively reinstated them while the case makes its way through the judicial system. Some of the laws currently remain suspended due to the SEIU case.
If a court rules in favor of the League of Women Voters, the state Legislature believes it could create further chaos in the state.
An attorney for the Republican-controlled Legislature, an intervening defendant in the case, said agreeing with the argument the extraordinary session was convened illegally would put a list of actions resulting from extraordinary sessions at risk of invalidation.
For example, public funding for Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum — which is the Milwaukee Bucks’ home arena and the site hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2020 — was approved during an extraordinary session, the attorney said.