The Wisconsin Supreme Court cleared the way on Tuesday for significant cuts to collective bargaining rights for public workers in the state, undoing a lower court’s decision that Wisconsin’s controversial law had been passed improperly.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, issued at the close of the business day, spared lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Capitol from having to do what some of them strongly hoped to avoid: calling for a new vote on the polarizing collective bargaining measure, which had drawn tens of thousands of protesters to Madison this year and led Democratic lawmakers to flee the city in an effort to block the bill.
Republican leaders had warned on Monday that if the Supreme Court did not rule by Tuesday, they would feel compelled to attach the same measure to the state’s budget bill, which is expected to be approved this week.
Four months after the fight began, the decision ended, at least for now, lingering questions about when and whether the cuts would take effect, but it also underscored the state’s partisan divide, which seems to grow wider by the day. The ruling was 4 to 3, split along what many viewed as the court’s predictable conservative-liberal line. One of the dissenting justices even raised the specter of a “partisan slant” by the other side.
The majority of the justices concluded that a lower court was wrong when it found that the Legislature had forced through the cuts in collective bargaining without giving sufficient notice — 24 hours — under the state’s open-meetings requirements. The measure passed in early March, three weeks after the State Senate’s Democrats fled to Illinois to block the vote from occurring.
In its written decision, the court cited the importance of the separation of powers, and said the Legislature had not violated the state’s Constitution when it relied on its “interpretation of its own rules of proceeding” and gave slightly less than two hours’ notice before meeting and voting. In the end, the provision passed without the attendance of any of the Senate’s 14 Democrats.
Justice David T. Prosser, whose re-election bid was threatened this year because he was seen as a conservative who would cast the deciding vote on the collective bargaining measure if it came before the court, voted to overturn the lower court ruling. He issued his own opinion concurring with the majority.
Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, who is viewed by many as leading the court’s liberal wing, wrote a scathing opinion that accused the majority of a “hasty judgment.”
“It is long on rhetoric and long on story-telling that appears to have a partisan slant,” Chief Justice Abrahamson wrote of Justice Prosser’s opinion, later adding, “This kind of order seems to open the court unnecessarily to the charge that the majority has reached a pre-determined conclusion not based on the facts and the law, which undermines the majority’s ultimate decision.”
Republicans, who won control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office in last November’s elections, praised the ruling, and said they could now move forward with what some of them describe as a fiscally wise budget.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling provides our state the opportunity to move forward together and focus on getting Wisconsin working again,” Gov. Scott Walker said.
Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald — brothers and Republican leaders in the Legislature — issued a statement describing the ruling as unsurprising. “We followed the law when the bill was passed, simple as that,” they said.
Democrats said the court’s decision was unsurprising given a battle that has turned so fierce. Protesters, again, were mounting at the Capitol. Democratic leaders said they planned to remind voters of the collective bargaining bill in the weeks before Senate recall elections that grew out of the fight.
“I guarantee you, some Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief about not having to take this up again,” said Senator Christopher Larson, a Democrat. “On the other hand, these justices just sent a reminder to voters of what has happened here.”