MADISON (AP) — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers rehired dozens of Republican appointees he fired last week after a judge invalidated their legislative confirmations, marking another twist in the tangled legal battle over whether lawmakers were within their rights when they met for a lame-duck session last year.
Republicans convened in December to pass sweeping legislation weakening Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul's powers before they took office. Senate Republicans confirmed 82 of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker's appointments during the floor period.
The moves outraged Democrats and have sparked multiple lawsuits. Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess on March 21 ruled the session was illegal because it wasn't on the Legislature's 2017-19 floor period schedule, invalidating all actions lawmakers took during it. Evers rescinded the appointments the next day.
On Wednesday, though, the 3rd District Court of Appeals stayed Niess' ruling pending Republicans' full appeal, reinstating the lame-duck laws and votes and raising questions about whether the stay reinstated the Walker appointees.
Republican legislators' attorney, Misha Tseytlin, argued the stay put the appointees back to work. Evers' attorney, Lester Pines, countered that they remained out of work because Evers took action before the stay came down.
Ellen Nowak, who was serving as a member of the state Public Service Commission before Evers fired her along with the other 81 appointees, tried to go back to work Thursday morning, but a security guard stopped her from entering the PSC's building.
"Now I'll go home and walk my dog, I guess," Nowak told reporters. "It's really unfortunate we're at this stage."
On Thursday afternoon, Evers suddenly gave 67 of the 82 appointees their jobs back. Most of the positions are spots on little-known boards and councils.
The governor left 15 higher-profile positions unfilled, including Nowak's commissioner spot, two University of Wisconsin System regent slots and the Labor and Industry Review Commission leader.
Evers' spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, didn't immediately return email and voicemail messages.
"Now I'll go home and walk my dog, I guess. It's really unfortunate we're at this stage." — Ellen Nowak, former member of state Public Service Commission
The lame-duck session has been a source of friction between Evers and Kaul and Republicans as the governor and attorney general try to find their footing three months into their first terms.
The laws prevent Evers from pulling the state out of lawsuits with legislative approval — a move designed to keep him from fulfilling a campaign pledge to withdraw from a multistate lawsuit challenging federal health care reforms.
The measures prohibit Kaul from settling cases without lawmakers' OK and force him to deposit settlement awards in the state general fund rather than in state Department of Justice accounts. The statutes also grant the Legislature the right to intervene in lawsuits with their own attorneys. Until now lawmakers had to ask a judge for permission to join cases. Those provisions are designed to ensure Republicans can defend in court laws that Evers and Kaul don't support.
Despite the stay, key portions of the lame-duck laws remain blocked. Another Dane County judge, Frank Remington, issued a preliminary injunction in a separate case Monday that blocks sections of the laws that limit Evers and Kaul's powers, including the language barring Evers from pulling out of lawsuits. Remington found that those provisions violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.