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Unions in court over laws limiting Wisconsin governor, attorney general

Posted at 12:16 PM, Mar 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-25 13:16:08-04

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Laws passed by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature during a lame-duck session in December that weakened powers of the Democratic governor and attorney general were back before a circuit judge Monday, less than a week after another judge struck them down as unconstitutional.

Republicans appealed last week's ruling, and the state appeals court could rule as soon as Monday on that request to immediately reinstate the laws and put last week's ruling on hold.

Gov. Tony Evers moved quickly after last week's order to rescind 82 of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker's appointments that the state Senate confirmed during the lame-duck session. And Attorney General Josh Kaul, at Evers' order, moved to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act, a power taken away from him during the lame-duck session.

The judge last week ruled that the laws were illegally passed because the type of session lawmakers used to meet in December was unconstitutional. Republicans called themselves into "extraordinary session" to pass the bills, but Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess said there was no basis in state law to call such sessions.

The attorney for Republican lawmakers, Misha Tseytlin, argued that the ruling jeopardizes the validity of thousands of other laws passed during extraordinary sessions.

That case was brought by the League of Women Voters and other groups.

The lawsuit being heard Monday was filed by a coalition of five unions. They argue that the laws violate the state constitution's separation of powers doctrine because they take power from the executive branch and transfer them to the Legislature. Republicans counter that the laws are constitutional and ensure a proper balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.

Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington began the hearing Monday by informing all the parties that he's already drafted a written decision.

The unions' attorney, Matthew Wessler, called the lame-duck laws an "egregious attempt to override the democratic process for political gain." Evers' attorney, Lester Pines, said the laws "hobble" the executive branch.

"You couldn't write legislation that was worse in that sense of interfering with the executive branch's ability to do its job," Pines said.

Tysetlin filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the branches share power under the laws.

Remington grilled the attorneys for hours, going through each of the laws, section by section, and demanding both sides defend their positions on each provision. It wasn't clear when the judge might issue his decision.

The lame-duck session laws gave lawmakers, rather than the governor, the power to withdraw the state from lawsuits. That blocked Evers' ability to fulfill his campaign promise to get Wisconsin out of a federal lawsuit seeking repeal of the federal health care law.

The laws also require the attorney general to seek legislative approval before settling any case and to deposit settlement winnings in the state general fund rather than in state Department of Justice accounts. The laws also rework voting regulations, restrict early in-person voting to the two weeks preceding an election and loosen requirements for military and overseas voters.

A federal judge already struck down the early voting restrictions as unconstitutional in a separate lawsuit. A fourth lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party challenging the lame-duck laws is pending in federal court.