The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday sided with the GOP-controlled Legislature in upholding laws that curb the power of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul.
The ruling from the court’s four-member conservative majority is a significant win for Republicans, who passed the controversial laws in December, after Republican Gov. Scott Walker was defeated but before his Democratic successor took office. Liberals have claimed the laws undemocratically shifted power away from the executive branch of state government and toward the legislative branch.
It also closes the books on one of a handful of cases challenging the constitutionality of the laws on several fronts. The ruling was expected after conservative justices more than a month ago grilled the attorneys challenging the GOP-authored legislation, which gained nationwide attention and prompted waves of protesters who argued it was undemocratic.
The decision drew early praise from GOP leaders, who called it a “common-sense decision.”
“The Court upheld a previously non-controversial legislative practice used by both parties for decades to enact some of the most important laws in the state,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a joint statement. “This lawsuit, pursued by special interests and Governor Evers, has led to an unnecessary waste of taxpayer resources. We urge the governor to work with the Legislature instead of pursuing his political agenda through the courts.”
The case challenging the laws was brought by the League of Women Voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and other liberal groups. Rulings from lower courts on the laws threw state government into disarray for much of the Evers administration.
Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess in March had agreed with the challengers and blocked enforcement of the laws, allowing Evers to rescind 15 Walker board appointments the Senate had confirmed during the lame-duck session. The Supreme Court later restored the appointments.
Kaul also managed to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act while the laws were on hold after a lower court’s injunction.
Evers is named as a defendant in the case, but sided with the League. The Republican-controlled state Legislature intervened as a defendant-appellant.
The governor in a statement Friday morning called the 4-3 decision “disappointing” and “all too predictable.”
Specifically, the laws Republicans passed during a so-called extraordinary session of the Legislature in December limit Attorney General Josh Kaul’s ability to control the state’s participation in lawsuits, target Evers’ power to run the state’s economic-development agency and limit early voting hours.
A federal judge earlier this year struck down the voting hours provision.
The laws also require Kaul to get permission from a GOP-controlled legislative committee to settle lawsuits, and they guarantee that the Legislature can intervene in many cases using its own attorneys rather than those from the state Department of Justice.
The League of Women Voters case focused on the extraordinary session, the procedure Republicans used to call the Legislature back into session to pass the controversial legislation.
The League argued the laws were unconstitutional because such sessions of the Legislature are not specifically sanctioned by law or the state constitution.
“The state constitution is clear,” Evers said in his statement. “It limits when the Legislature can meet to pass laws. Our framers knew that no good comes from lawmakers rushing laws through at the last minute without public scrutiny. This was an attack on the will of the people, our democracy and our system of government.”
The Republican Legislature, however, argued the extraordinary session is lawful, in part because the Legislature is in continuous session and does not need outside permission to call an extraordinary session.
Misha Tseytlin, an attorney for the Legislature, has said that if courts ruled in favor of the challengers, it could call into question decades’ worth of other laws adopted in past extraordinary sessions, creating a “rolling disaster.”
In its ruling on Friday, the court sided with the Legislature, adding that the state constitution and statutes give the Legislature “the discretion to construct its work schedule, including preserving times for it to meet in an extraordinary session.”
“The Wisconsin Constitution mandates that the Legislature meet ‘at such time as shall be provided by law,’” wrote Justice Rebecca Bradley for the majority. “The Legislature did so.”
The majority opinion also relied upon the argument that ruling in favor of the League would unnecessarily violate the doctrine of separation of powers.
Justice Rebecca Dallet, dissenting with fellow liberal justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, disagreed, arguing the majority ignored constitutional text that, in Dallet’s view, precludes the Legislature from meeting in extraordinary session.
The high court took the case in April after the League requested it to, circumventing a state appeals court.
The Supreme Court has yet to issue a final ruling in a separate case challenging the lame-duck laws on separation of powers grounds. Another federal case brought by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin is in its early stages.