Federal Judge Deals Wisconsin Democrats Defeat in Lame-Duck Law Fight

Opponents of an extraordinary session bill submitted by Wisconsin Republican legislators hold “Stop Lame Duck” signs at a rally outside the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison on Dec. 3, 2018. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A federal judge in Wisconsin dismissed a lawsuit Monday by the state’s Democratic Party over lame-duck laws passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature that limited the powers of the Democratic governor and attorney general.

The lawsuit, filed by state Democrats in February, challenged the constitutionality of the lame-duck laws and the procedures used to pass them, claiming violations of the First Amendment, equal protection and guarantee clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The Democrats asked the court for a preliminary block of the laws.

Signed into law by outgoing Republican Governor Scott Walker in December, the lame-duck provisions tightened the reins on incoming Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul following midterm elections that saw liberals take every statewide office. The laws were passed during a hurried, surprise extraordinary session of the Legislature called two weeks after the election.

In part, the wide-ranging laws give the Legislature broad oversight power over the governor’s ability to execute health care waivers and implement drug testing and minimum work requirements for some recipients of welfare such as food stamps. In addition, they grant the Legislature the power to intervene in the state’s lawsuits and require the attorney general to clear any of the state’s court settlements with a legislative committee.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge James Peterson said in a 15-page opinion that while “there are many reasons to criticize the lame-duck laws the role of a federal court is not to second-guess the wisdom of state legislation, or to decide how the state should allocate the power among the branches of its government.”

While Peterson conceded that “the legislative defendants do not dispute that the lame-duck laws were intended to limit the power of the newly Democratic executive officers and to consolidate power in the Republican-controlled Legislature” – a central claim of the Democrats’ lawsuit – he nevertheless found that “the only identifiable harm alleged is that the Legislature has prevented plaintiffs from enacting policies that they support.”

Peterson said the U.S. Constitution has no remedy for the harm alleged. Any disputes over the lame-duck laws, Peterson said, must be litigated in state court under the Wisconsin Constitution.

The lame-duck laws and the process that brought them about has been the subject of five lawsuits in the past nine months. The laws have been upheld at nearly every turn.

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the laws in a 4-3 decision along party lines in a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and others. That suit claimed the Legislature did not convene legally during its December extraordinary session.

Less than two weeks before that, the state high court lifted injunctions on most of the lame-duck provisions stemming from a suit brought by local unions, including a chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The justices will hear arguments in the SEIU case Oct. 21.

Badger State liberals did see a win in another federal lawsuit brought by One Wisconsin Institute and other liberal advocacy groups over the lame-duck provisions in January when Peterson blocked early-voting limits in the bills. The early-voting provision is one of only two lame-duck laws to be remain blocked; the other involves rules over certification of administrative guidance documents, which helps businesses comply with state agency rules.

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, a chief architect of the December extraordinary session and the lame-duck laws, blasted Democrats in a statement Tuesday in reaction to Peterson’s ruling.

“Democrats will spare no expense trying to get their political agenda through the courts,” he said. “It’s estimated this frivolous lawsuit in federal court cost taxpayers $250,000.”

Vos vowed that “Republicans will continue to defend these duly passed laws.”

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler, elected to his post in June, lamented Peterson’s ruling and did not rule out the possibility of appealing the ruling in a statement Tuesday.

“Less than a year ago,” Wikler said, “the GOP robbed Wisconsin voters of their voice by stripping away powers those voters had awarded to their next governor and attorney general. The Democratic Party has fought against the GOP’s shocking assault on democracy at every turn, and we will keep fighting. We’re exploring our legal options and, no matter what, will fight to ensure accountability at the ballot box.”

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