Last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker put a deceptively positive gloss on the legal battles surrounding his stalled union-busting bill in an interview with the right-wing Newsmax website.
Background on the Legal Battles
Skip to the next paragraph if you are already familiar with the legal issues surrounding Act 10
As CMD has reported, Governor Walker's union-busting bill ("Act 10") was amended by a conference committee on March 11 to avoid quorum requirements, then passed by the Wisconsin Senate with no Democrats present. State Open Meetings laws require 24 hours notice for all meetings, or two hours with "good cause," but neither standard was met at the March 11 vote. Following a complaint from Dane County's District Attorney, Judge MaryAnn Sumi found a probable Open Meetings violation and issued an order preventing the Secretary of State from publishing the bill, a necessary step before it can become law. Attorney General JB Van Hollen appealed the decision, and the Court of Appeals offered the case to the state Supreme Court on March 24, which has not taken action (possibly because Justice Prosser's election is still pending). In the meantime, the Legislative Reference Bureau published the law under statutory authority separate from that of the Secretary of State, raising questions of whether the bill has become law, and prompting Judge Sumi to issue an order declaring it not to be in effect.
On April 7, Governor Walker's Administration jumped into the fray and asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to vacate Judge Sumi's order.
Walker Administration's Legal Position Contrary to Governor's Statements
The Walker Administration's petition was discussed during the Governor's videotaped interview with mustachioed Newsmax anchor Ashley Martell. Walker said:
My administration this week appealed to the state Supreme Court on two counts. Really both on […] the fact that we don't believe it is legitimate for the judge to be an issuing a temporary restraining order when we think the law was dufully (sic) passed by the members of the state legislature. (at 3:29)
Mustache Martella replied: "speaking of that, the legal issue seems to be the notice given before the vote..."
The heart of the issue that is regarding the restraining order really involves the issue of the open meetings laws and whether or not there was notice on that. The legislature feels, and I think they are right about this, that they very clearly did follow the statute, that under other circumstances there might be a problem, but in a special session ... it is clear that they followed the law. (at 4:12)
Despite Walker's faith in the conduct of fellow Wisconsin Republicans, his legal team is not contending that GOP legislators followed the law, but only that violations of that law be enforced more leniently. In its petition to the Supreme Court, not once does Walker's Administration argue that Republican legislators acted lawfully.
Walker's petition focuses on three issues, claiming (1) that breaking an Open Meetings law is a "procedural violation" that cannot be punished through voiding a legislative act, (2) that a court does not have jurisdiction to prevent a bill from becoming law (even if it may have authority to void a law once enacted), and (3) that the Act is published and is now law, meaning Sumi's order has no relevance. The brief also questions whether the District Attorney can sue to invalidate a statute, and whether Judge Sumi could enter an order considering defendants' legislative immunity. Significantly, the petition does not discuss whether legislative notice rules can override Open Meetings laws (which, if argued, could have implied legislators acted lawfully).
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Walker's Newsmax statements give the impression that legislators acted honorably, avoiding the fact that they may have illegally shut citizens out of the political process, violated the state's constitutionally-recognized open government guarantees, and did so on a bill that has a significant impact and massive public attention. This is no small matter. As the late Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice William Bablitch wrote in the 1994 case State ex rel. Hodge vs. Town of Turtle Lake:
The purpose of the Open Meetings Law is to protect the public's right to be informed to the fullest extent of the affairs of government... An open meetings law is not necessary to ensure openness in easy and noncontroversial matters where no one really cares whether the meeting is open or not. Like the First Amendment, which exists to protect unfavored speech, the Open Meetings Law exists to ensure open government in controversial matters.
Open Meetings laws are fundamentally important to Wisconsin's democracy, and violations are serious business. If Walker genuinely believes the GOP lawmakers' actions were virtuous and lawful, his administration's legal documents should reflect that.