Wis. judge rules against governor's budget bill

Jessica M. Karmasek May 26, 2011, 12:00pm


MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) - Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi has struck down Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's controversial Budget Repair Bill.

In a 33-page decision Thursday, Sumi ruled that the March 9 meeting of the state Legislature's Joint Committee of Conference violated Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law and that the budget bill "consequently has no force or effect."

The governor's bill, Wisconsin Act 10, has been a source of controversy for months now, eliminating nearly all collective bargaining rights for those public employee union members. Walker, a Republican, had proposed the measure in response to state budget deficits.

However, the law could not go into effect because of a temporary restraining order put in place in March by Sumi.

Sumi, in her ruling March 18, would not allow Secretary of State Doug La Follette to publish the law. At the time, she said a legislative committee violated the Open Meetings Law when it approved a new version of the governor's budget bill during the March 9 meeting.

Sumi reaffirmed her ruling in her decision Thursday.

"This case is the exemplar of values protected by the Open Meetings Law: transparency in government, the right of citizens to participate in their government, and respect for the rule of law," she wrote.

"It is not this court's business to determine whether 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 is good public policy or bad public policy; that is the business of the Legislature. It is this court's responsibility, however, to apply the rule of law to the facts before it."

Sumi said the evidence, in this case, was "clear and convincing."

"This was not a case in which proper notice was missed by a few minutes or an hour. Not even the two-hour notice justified by 'good cause' was provided," she wrote.

"The legislators were understandably frustrated by the stalemate existing on March 9, but that does not justify jettisoning compliance with the Open Meetings Law in an attempt to move the Budget Repair Bill to final action."

The judge said the Legislature, itself, had the opportunity to "promptly correct" the violation and eliminate the case entirely.

"It could have provided timely notice of a new Committee meeting and convened the meeting in an open and public location. It has not yet done so," Sumi wrote.

"Even if the legislators believe that they did not violate the Open Meetings Law, convening a new meeting would not require an admission of violation and would have prevented the needless expenditure of taxpayer money to continue this lawsuit."

In coming to a decision, Sumi said she had to consider the potential damage to public trust and confidence in government if the Legislature was not held to the same rules of transparency that it has created for other governmental bodies.

"Our form of government depends on citizens' trust and confidence in the process by which our elected officials make laws, at all levels of government," she wrote.

Even with Sumi's decision, the legal challenge to the governor's collective bargaining bill doesn't end there.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in an order earlier this month, has set oral arguments for 9:45 a.m. June 6.

The Court will then decide whether Sumi had the authority to block the implementation of Walker's budget bill.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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