Lawsuit targets GOP laws reducing Wisconsin governor's power

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers acknowledges the crowd after Evers was sworn in during the inauguration ceremony Monday. Photo: AP Photo/Andy Manis
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers acknowledges the crowd after Evers was sworn in during the inauguration ceremony Monday.

January 10, 2019 03:07 PM

A coalition of liberal-leaning groups filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to void laws passed by Wisconsin Republicans that reduced the powers of the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general.

Republicans derided the lawsuit as a frivolous attempt by bitter Democrats to score political points.

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The legal challenge is the first seeking to undo all of the measures approved during last month's lame-duck legislative session. The lawsuit argues the session was unconstitutional because it amounted to an illegal gathering of lawmakers.

Then-Gov. Scott Walker, who was defeated by Democrat Tony Evers in November, quickly signed the legislation before leaving office.

The new laws include taking away Evers' ability to withdraw the state from lawsuits without legislative approval, which would prevent Evers from fulfilling his campaign promise to remove Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the federal health care law. The laws also prevent Evers from rescinding federal Medicaid waivers approved under the Walker administration.

Another new law gives the Legislature, rather than newly sworn-in Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, the power to decide how to spend money obtained from lawsuit settlements.


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The coalition's lawsuit hinges on the procedural move Republicans used to call themselves into what is known as an "extraordinary session." The lawsuit argues that the Wisconsin Constitution only allows for the Legislature to meet "at such time as provided by law" or in a "special" session, which is a session called by the governor. The lawsuit contends the session held in December didn't fit either category.

The groups that filed the lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court are the League of Women Voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and three Wisconsin voters.

Wisconsin Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called the lawsuit frivolous and said Democrats were "throwing a tantrum." Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday he was "absolutely, positively certain this lawsuit won't have merit."

He circulated a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Council — attorneys who advise lawmakers — that said the Legislature has the constitutional authority to determine its own rules. Furthermore, the memo said the Wisconsin Supreme Court has made clear that organizational issues like this are for the legislative branch to deal with "free from interference from the judicial branch."

"Courts are unlikely to aggressively interpret the law and inject themselves into the legislative process," said Rick Esenberg, head of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the governor expected such a legal challenge and that he would consult with his attorney about his next move.

"This legislation was a hasty and cynical attempt by Republicans to override the will of the people," Baldauff said Thursday.

Legislative "extraordinary sessions" are common in Wisconsin, but the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau said the session held in December was the first time it had been used to restrict the powers of an incoming governor and attorney general.

The lawsuit comes as state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, also filed a complaint with the Dane County district attorney seeking to void the lame-duck laws. Anderson is paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. He contends Republican lawmakers violated the state's open meetings law by not revealing when they would vote on the bills.

Anderson, who said he can't be in his chair more than 16 hours a day, missed the early morning vote that came after Republicans negotiated the bills in private all night long.

Tom Kamenick, another attorney with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said Anderson's allegation was baseless because the state Supreme Court has already ruled courts can't hear open meetings law complaints against the Legislature.

"I'm not aware of any cases or interpretations of open meetings law holding that a session can be 'too long' such that it excludes somebody," Kamenick said.

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