Wisconsin Judge Declares Walker’s Collective Bargaining Bill “Null and Void”

On May 26, Wisconsin Judge Maryann Sumi ruled Governor Scott Walker's "budget repair bill," which would eviscerate collective bargaining rights for most public workers in the state, "null and void."

Sumi ruled that lawmakers clearly violated the state's open meetings law in their rush to pass the bill at the height of the capitol protests, and that the public interest in the enforcement of the state's open records law outweighed the public interest in sustaining legislative action.

A Dramatic Day in March

Back in March, the Walker "budget repair bill" was stuck in limbo because 14 Democratic senators left the state to prevent action on the bill. For fiscal bills, a supermajority is needed for final passage. On March 9, Republican lawmakers -- led by Scott Fitzgerald in the Senate and Jeff Fitzgerald in the Assembly -- pulled a fast one. They stripped the bill of fiscal items and hastily convened a Joint Conference Committee to vote on the legislation. Rather than meeting in a standard committee room, the conference committee jammed into the tiny, ornate Senate Parlor with a dozen or so members of the media and a few members of the public.

Because less than two hours notice was given, the "Wisconsin 14" were still out of state and could not make it back in time. Facebook and Twitter ensured that thousands rushed to the capitol building, but they could not get in due to the restrictive door access implemented by the Republicans.

The only Democrat assigned to the committee who could attend was Representative Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), who famously stood in the tense Senate Parlor calmly reading a legal memo from the current Republican Attorney General advising legislators to grant 24 hours notice before important meetings.

In the dramatic footage that was played on national television, Barca repeats over and over, "This meeting is in violation of the open meetings law," while in the background you can clearly hear the chants of "shame, shame, shame" from the crowds gathering under the Senate Parlor window. While many were livid, some were quietly in tears in complete disbelief that they were locked out of the building during a vote that would affect the lives and livelihoods of 300,000 workers across the state. It was the single most dramatic day of the Wisconsin protests.

A Legislator Vindicated

Today, Barca was proved right.

"Today's decision by Judge Sumi restores Wisconsin's long tradition of open government. This ruling sets an important precedent that when the Legislature meets, the people must have a seat at the table. This is a huge victory for Wisconsin democracy," said Barca. Sumi ruled the evidence was "clear and convincing" that a conference committee failed to comply with the law which requires 24 hours notice of meetings. She said that they had not even provided the two hours notice, which is sometimes acceptable in emergencies.

"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," Sumi wrote. "It is not the 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."

Predictably, the Fitzgerald brothers did not take the ruling humbly. Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said in a statement: "Act 10 was passed and signed into law in accordance with the rules of the state legislature. I remain confident that the Wisconsin State Supreme Court will rule accordingly and Act 10 will become law."

Apparently, the Fitzgerald brothers are waiting on their friends on the Supreme Court to get them out of the situation they are in, rather than properly passing the bill a second time. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that they simply no longer have the votes. Six Republican Senators face recall elections this summer. A second vote might fan the flames of an already angry populace who is ready and willing to replace Governor Walker, according to polls released earlier in the week. Voters say that if the election were held today, they would pick former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold over Walker by a 52-32 margin.

With one third of the Wisconsin Senate up for recall and the first elections scheduled for July 12, it is certain that there are many more dramatic days ahead in this battle for the future of Wisconsin.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.