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Judge oversteps her authority – Supreme Court clears the way for sweeping changes to collective bargaining

June 15, 2011

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in a decision issued late Tuesday afternoon held that Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi impermissibly usurped legislative power when she restrained and later voided laws curtailing public sector collective bargaining.

Judge Sumi ruled last month that a legislative committee violated Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law when it acted in March to amend the bill. The amendment removed fiscal items from the bill allowing the measure to proceed to a vote despite the absence of Senate Democrats who were boycotting the legislation.

The Supreme Court in a nine-page opinion ruled that the legislative committee did not violate the Open Meetings Law when the bill was amended. The Court held that the committee was subject only to the legislature’s own rules while in a special session and was not subject to the minimum notice requirements of the Open Meetings Law.

The Supreme Court voided all of the orders issued by Judge Sumi in the case before her. The Court noted that Judge Sumi’s ruling, which had barred the implementation of the collective bargaining law changes, was void ab initio, or invalid from the outset. The Court held that Judge Sumi exceeded her jurisdiction and invaded the constitutional authority of the legislature.

Majority leaders in the legislature noted earlier in the day that they were prepared to include the collective bargaining changes in the Budget Bill under consideration this week. The Court’s ruling, coming just a week after oral argument, obviates the need for the legislators to have to vote once again on the controversial provisions as recall elections approach.

While the Supreme Court decision voids Judge Sumi’s ruling and clears the way for the law to become effective, two other lawsuits remain which challenge the collective bargaining law changes on other grounds. It has been reported that several other challenges are yet to be filed. The dispute is far from over.

As might be expected, the Supreme Court decision has met with sharply divided praise and criticism. The decision explores the intersection of legislative and judicial powers. Add a dash of politics and you have a recipe for an interesting civics lesson.  That lesson will play out in the weeks and months ahead.

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