Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin, including Gov. Scott Walker, have yet another decision to make in the wake of a state trial judge's ruling Friday that temporarily blocked enforcement of Wisconsin's controversial new public union law. And none of their paths are certain to bring them back to where they want to be.
Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi created the headache for Walker and company when she ruled that Wisconsin's "open meetings" law required more public notice of a legislative vote than was given by Republican lawmakers on the evening of March 9th. That was the night GOP lawmakers took their surprise vote, in the absence of their still-in-hiding Democratic counterparts, and passed the divisive measure which undercuts collective bargaining rights in the state.
Gov. Walker subsequently signed the law and it was scheduled to be published -- a requirement for implementation -- on March 25th. But because the measure was enacted in violation of the 30-year-old transparency law, Judge Sumi ruled, it could not yet go into effect. The Wisconsin State Journal quoted her as saying: "This was something that would and did catch the public unaware... what ended up being a closed session of a body in propelling legislation forward."
Her procedural decision had nothing to do with the legal or political merits of the fight over collective bargaining rights. But it will likely affect those merits anyway, in whole or in part. Here's part of what the state statute says about how other state statutes are to be lawfully enacted:
"Public notice of every meeting of a governmental body shall be given at least 24 hours prior to the commencement of such meeting unless for good cause such notice is impossible or impractical, in which case shorter notice may be given, but in no case may the notice be provided less than 2 hours in advance of the meeting."
After a brief hearing on the matter, Judge Sumi said Friday in court: "It seems to me the public policy behind effective enforcement of the open meeting law is so strong that it does outweigh the interest, at least at this time, which may exist in favor of sustaining the validity of the (law)."
So the GOP in Wisconsin now has a few options. The GOP can go back to the start of the legislative process and seek to enact the measure in more traditional circumstances. This could mean more Democratic walkouts. It could mean more protests at the State House in Madison. It could mean some sort of political compromise. Or it could mean the passage of an exact but newer version of the new collective bargaining law. And there's no point in betting on which option is more likely because no reasonable person would lay odds on any of it given Wisconsin's recent political history.
The GOP can slug it out in court and hope that a majority of the justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court have a different view of the open meetings law (and what happened on March 9th) than did Judge Sumi. The problem with that option is that it requires the state's appellate judiciary to undercut the open meetings law not just in these circumstances -- which everyone concedes were unusual -- but in more conventional scenarios as well. No one (yet) is claiming the law itself is unconstitutional or otherwise beyond the power of state legislators. The state supreme court could require a do-over at the Statehouse while promising its ruling has nothing to do with the politics of the law.
Or, the GOP can pursue both paths at the same time and hope for success in either one. The problem with that scenario is that it would require politicians to spend more time and energy in pitched legislative battle over an issue -- new collective-bargaining legislation, properly noticed -- which may subsequently be rendered moot by an appellate ruling that recognizes the legitimacy of the existing collective-bargaining law. I suspect few politicians in Wisconsin would want to go through the ordeal again even if they were assured that it would mean something in the end. But to ask them to do so when the existing law may ultimately be revived may be a bit much.
There are other lawsuits pending against the legislation. Judge Sumi herself is involved in another one of those. What emerged from political chaos looks now to be heading toward a period of legal chaos