This story by Steven Greenhouse appeared May 27, 2011 in the New York Times.
Ruling that Republicans in the State Senate had violated the state’s open meetings law, a judge in Wisconsin dealt a blow to them and to Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday by granting a permanent injunction that voided a law curbing collective bargaining rights for many state and local employees.
Judge Maryann Sumi of Dane County Circuit Court said the Senate vote on March 9, held after 14 Democratic senators had fled the state, failed to comply with the open meetings law, which requires at least two hours’ notice to the public.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on June 6, and Republican lawmakers are hoping the court will overturn Judge Sumi’s ruling and reinstate the law.
The Senate could choose to pass the bill again while assuring proper notice. But some political experts said a new vote might meet numerous obstacles. Some Democrats could flee the state again, and some Republican senators are facing recall elections.
The law, which Governor Walker proposed and vigorously pushed, and which generated huge protests in Madison, the state capital, bars public-sector unions, except those representing police officers and firefighters, from bargaining over health benefits and pensions. It allows bargaining over wages, but does not permit raises higher than the inflation rate unless they are approved in a public referendum.
The Senate’s 19 Republicans approved the measure, 18 to 1, in less than half an hour, without debate on the floor or a single Democrat in the room. They rushed the vote after weeks of boisterous pro-union rallies in Madison and after hundreds of demonstrators slept inside the State Capitol and crowded and shouted outside the legislative chambers.
Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican Senate majority leader, criticized Judge Sumi’s decision.
“There’s still a much larger separation-of-powers issue: whether one Madison judge can stand in the way of the other two democratically elected branches of government,” he said in a statement. “The Supreme Court is going to have the ultimate ruling.”
Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers’ union, applauded the decision, saying the law was intended to “bust unions.”
“In the wake of this ruling, state lawmakers should back down and not take another run at this divisive legislation,” she said in a statement. “It is not in the best interest of students, schools or Wisconsin’s future to take the voices of educators out of our classrooms.”
Republican senators asserted that they had enacted the bargaining law under emergency conditions, making it unnecessary to comply with the open meetings law. But Judge Sumi said she found no official evidence of emergency conditions or notice.
“This case is the exemplar of values protected by the open meetings law: transparency in government, the right of citizens to participate in their government and respect for the rule of law,” Judge Sumi wrote.
She said the evidence demonstrated a failure to obey even the two-hour notice allowed for good cause if a 24-hour notice was impossible or impractical.
Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Mr. Walker, declined to comment, saying the Senate vote did not directly involve the governor.
Judge Sumi rejected the Republicans’ claims that the open meetings law did not allow bills passed by the Legislature to be struck down, only laws by lesser bodies. She also rejected the idea that the law was so important that it should stand despite the open meetings violation.
Quoting a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision from last year, Judge Sumi wrote, “The right of the people to monitor the people’s business is one of the core principles of democracy.”