(CN) – A Wisconsin judge on Thursday threw out the state’s controversial anti-union law. In clear violation of Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law, Republican legislators pushed the law through a joint committee of conference on March 9, Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi wrote.
“The evidence demonstrated that the March 9, 2011 committee meeting was held on less than two hours notice in a location that was not open and accessible to citizens,” according to the 33-page ruling.
This conduct occurred despite the fact that the meeting tackled a matter that Sumi described as being of “undisputed … great statewide interest.”
“This was not a case in which proper notice was missed by a few minutes or an hour,” Sumi wrote. “Not even the two-hour notice justified by ‘good cause’ was provided. The legislators were understandably frustrated by the stalemate existing on March 9, but that does not justify jettisoning compliance with the Open Meetings Law in an attempt to move the Budget Repair Bill to final action. Moreover, if there is any doubt as to the Committee’s awareness of its violation, one need only read the short transcript of the Committee’s March 9 proceedings.”
Instead of correcting this slight by convening a new and properly publicized meeting, however, the legislatures have remained stalwart, according to the ruling.
“It is not this court’s business to determine whether 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 is good public policy or bad public policy; that is the business of the Legislature,” Sumi, a Republican appointee, wrote. “It is this court’s responsibility, however, to apply the rule of law to the facts before it.”
As such, Sumi declared the law void and as having “no force or effect.”
The Budget Repair Bill – 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 – which Gov. Scott Walker claims was written to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall, has sparked a torrent of debate by Republicans, Democrats and independents since it was introduced on Feb. 11.
Walker claimed the that “the bill will balance the budget and lay the foundation for a long-term sustainable budget through several measures without raising taxes, raiding segregated funds, or using accounting gimmicks.”
He said the bill, which kills public employees’ collective bargaining rights to everything but salary, “will meet the immediate needs of our state and give government the tools to deal with this and future budget crises.”
The bill reduces many benefits state employees have received for years; it requires them to contribute 50 percent to their pensions, which never before required an employee pay-in; it increase employee contributions for health insurance from a 6 percent statewide average to just over 12 percent; it will strip collective bargaining rights; it prohibits employers from collecting union dues through paycheck deductions; and it requires annual votes to recertify union representation, among other things.
The bill – which makes far greater changes to collective-bargaining rights than it does to the state’s budget deficit – led to a national uproar.
All 14 Democratic state senators, dubbed by the media as the “Wisconsin 14” (and as “fleebaggers” by Republicans), fled to Illinois to delay the signing of the bill.
As many as 100,000 protesters a day – and some proponents of the bill – have rallied at the Capitol since Valentine’s Day. Arguably the most dramatic days of the protests was when Republican lawmakers jammed into the Senate Parlor with only media and a few members of the public to try and seal the deal in a 17-second vote. The only Democrat assigned to the committee who could attend was Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), who famously stood in the tense Senate Parlor calmly reading a legal memo (at least initially) from the current Republican attorney general advising legislators to grant 24 hours notice before important meetings.
Barca was vindicated Thursday and applauded the judge’s ruling in a statement on his website. “This decision also affirms that the people of Wisconsin have the right to be at table in their democracy and the Legislature and the Republicans are not above their obligation to open government,” Barca said. “Gov. Walker cost the taxpayers by refusing to respectfully sit across the table from his employees, look them in the eye and take yes for an answer on the benefit concessions they offered. We hope the Legislative Republicans will rethink their plan to betray the people of Wisconsin by taking away workers’ rights and hurting Wisconsin’s middle-class. Today’s decision by Judge Sumi restores Wisconsin’s long tradition of open government. This ruling sets an important precedent that when the Legislature meets, the people must have a seat at the table. This is a huge victory for Wisconsin democracy.”
The Supreme Court could reverse the decision or lawmakers could quickly pass the collective bargaining changes again. GOP lawmakers have said they would consider passing the law a second time as part of the 2011-2013 state budget if it was necessary to ensure that it takes effect.