Wisconsin’s highest court handed Governor Scott Walker’s administration a significant victory, ordering a new state law on limiting collective bargaining for public employees to take effect as planned.
The court’s 4-3 ruling overturned a lower court order, saying the judge improperly interfered with legislative authority. The ruling was a crushing defeat for the labor unions that were aggressive in their lobbying efforts.
When the bill was being debated last February and March, union protesters and sympathizers moved on the state capitol in force in an effort to intimidate pro-business legislators in what historically has been known as a union state.
Union executives and business agents in Wisconsin called the ruling “harmful” and threatened to use the state’s recall provision on legislators who voted in favor of the bill. Nine state senators – six Republican and three Democrats – now face a July recall election due in large part on how deliberations were held.
In protest, 14 Democrat state senators choose to flee the state for three weeks while the bill was being debated, forcing Republicans to pass the bill while many seats in the chamber were empty.
Walker maintained the bill was necessary to help address the state’s budget shortfall and give local governments flexibility in crafting their own budgets. Democrats said it was a blatant and direct attack on unions.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling provides our state the opportunity to move forward together and focus on getting Wisconsin working again,” the governor remarked.
Public union leaders and their leaders, largely made up of teachers, were infuriated. Mary Bell, the state president of the teacher’s union, fired a direct shot at the governor and the legislators who supported the measure.
“The divisive nature of the process – and now this ruling – highlights the polarizing influence Gov. Walker has brought to our state,” said Bell. “The extreme agenda and refusal to seek real solutions are the reasons why our members – by the tens of thousands – are active in recall elections. That’s the first step in taking back Wisconsin.”
At issue was the lower court’s order to supersede legislative authority. In Tuesday’s opinion, signed by three of the court’s seven justices, the court ruled Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi exceeded her authority. The justices wrote, “One of the courts that we charged with supervising has usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the legislature.”
Justice David Prosser narrowly survived a re-election battle in April that was largely seen as a referendum on the collective bargaining law.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote a scorching dissent of the court’s ruling, accusing Justice Prosser of appearing to have a “partisan slant” in his concurring opinion that he issued separately from the other justices voting in favor of the ruling.
Democrat legislator Peter Barca commented, “It’s now clear that unless the constitution is amended, the Legislature is free to ignore any laws on the books.” Barca also said the court’s rulings have left some legislators “above the law.”
It is not clear exactly when the new law will take effect. Secretary of State Douglas La Follette, a Democrat, is responsible for publishing the law and has some latitude in when that will occur.