Dane County judge Maryann Sumi today struck down Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s new collective-bargaining law, arguing that its passage by the state senate on March 9 violated the state’s open-meetings law. Sumi’s decision (PDF) isn’t a surprise, though the timing was surprising in that it came earlier than expected.
Sumi argues that the state senate violated the open-meetings law by failing to provide 24 hours’ notice of a legislative meeting — in this case, the conference committee meeting that forwarded the bill to the full senate. Yet, in her order, she doesn’t address the clear exemption to the rule provided in Senate Rule 93, which allows for no notice of proceedings for conference committee bills. The state statutes clearly give precedence to legislative rules in the case of conflict; Sumi simply believes no conflict exists, ignoring the fact that the bill was, in fact, a conference committee bill.
Naturally, unions and their legislative allies are celebrating. Assembly minority leader Peter Barca called Sumi’s ruling “a huge win for democracy in Wisconsin.” Of course, in this case “democracy” is when two duly elected branches of the legislature pass a law, the state’s popularly elected governor signs it, and then it gets struck down by one of 17 judges in one of 72 state counties. (In the decision, Sumi laughably casts herself as a champion of taxpayers, haranguing legislative leaders for “the needless expenditure of taxpayer money to continue this lawsuit.”)
Sumi’s position was never really in doubt — she repeatedly denied all attempts to discard the lawsuit, and issued a restraining order to keep the law from taking effect. Her order today is simply an appetizer to the inevitable supreme court battle ahead (which made the election of conservative justice David Prosser last month so critical). Otherwise, legislative leaders could add the invalidated provision to the pending budget bill and re-pass it — an option they have not ruled out.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
Update: This might explain the timing of Sumi’s ruling. Just yesterday, the state Department of Justice wrote a letter to Sumi warning her that they may seek her recusal based on a brief she had filed with the state supreme court last week. In her brief, Sumi argued an act of the legislature can be voided through a violation of the state’s open-meetings law — an issue which was before her court in the collective-bargaining lawsuit. DOJ attorneys charge that judges should recuse themselves from a proceeding in which they have made a public statement that “commits, or appears to commit” the judge to any issue or controversy in the case. By issuing her ruling today, the issue of her recusal is moot.