MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court handed Republican Gov. Scott Walker a major victory on Tuesday, ruling that a polarizing union law could take effect that strips most public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi overstepped her authority when she said Republican lawmakers violated the state's open meetings statutes in the run-up to passage of the legislation and declared the law void.
The law, which also requires public employees to pay more for their health care and pensions, sparked weeks of protests when Walker introduced it in February. Tens of thousands of demonstrators occupied the state Capitol for weeks and Democratic senators fled the state to prevent a vote, thrusting Wisconsin to the forefront of a national debate over labor rights.
In a one-sentence reaction to the ruling, the governor said: "The Supreme Court's ruling provides our state the opportunity to move forward together and focus on getting Wisconsin working again."
Walker has claimed that the law was needed to help address the state's $3.6 billion budget shortfall and give local governments enough flexibility on labor costs to deal with deep cuts to state aid. Democrats saw it as an attack on public employee unions, which usually back their party's candidates.
The Supreme Court's ruling will likely be the precursor to an avalanche of lawsuits and legal challenges that couldn't be brought until the law took effect.
The decision came just hours before the Wisconsin Assembly was expected to begin debating the state budget. Had the ruling not come down, Republicans planned to put the collective bargaining provisions into the budget so the changes could take effect during the court fight.
GOP legislative leaders, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, issued a joint statement saying they always believed the bill was legally approved.
"We followed the law when the bill was passed, simple as that," the brothers said in a statement. "We're finally headed in the right direction by balancing the budget and focusing on jobs, just like Republicans promised we would do."
Democratic Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who filed the lawsuit after Republicans pushed through the legislation, was disappointed.
"We've done the best we can," he said. "It looks like we've lost."
Democratic state senators fled to Illinois in February to try to prevent a vote on the measure, but Republicans got around the maneuver by convening a special committee to remove fiscal elements from the bill and allow a Senate vote with fewer members present. Walker signed the plan into law two days later.
Ozanne filed his lawsuit the next week claiming Republicans didn't provide the proper public notice of the meeting in violation of state law.
Sumi, the judge who initially heard Ozanne's lawsuit, first issued a temporary order blocking publication of the collective bargaining law while she weighed his arguments and then last month declared the law void.
Attorneys for the state Department of Justice, representing the Republicans who control the Legislature, asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take the case directly, in part to speed the process. Walker counted on the law being in effect in the budget he put forward for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
In vacating Sumi's ruling, the Supreme Court said she had "usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the legislature."
The Supreme Court said the lower court exceeded its jurisdiction and was wrong to block implementation of the law. The court also rejected arguments that Republicans violated the state open meetings law.
"The doors of the Senate and Assembly were kept open to the press and members of the public," the Supreme Court said. "Access was not denied."
In a blistering dissent, Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote that the majority decision was "hastily" reached and has unsupported conclusions. She said a concurring opinion written by Justice David Prosser, a former Republican speaker of the Assembly, was "long on rhetoric and long on story-telling that appears to have a partisan slant."
Abrahamson said the majority "set forth their own version of facts without evidence. They should not engage in this disinformation."