MADISON, Wis. — Jan 10, 2019, 2:58 PM ET

Lawsuit targets GOP laws reducing Wisconsin governor's power

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A coalition of liberal-leaning groups filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to void laws passed by Wisconsin Republicans that reduced the powers of the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general.

Republicans derided the lawsuit as a frivolous attempt by bitter Democrats to score political points.

The legal challenge is the first seeking to undo all of the measures approved during last month's lame-duck legislative session. The lawsuit argues the session was unconstitutional because it amounted to an illegal gathering of lawmakers.

Then-Gov. Scott Walker, who was defeated by Democrat Tony Evers in November, quickly signed the legislation before leaving office.

The new laws include taking away Evers' ability to withdraw the state from lawsuits without legislative approval, which would prevent Evers from fulfilling his campaign promise to remove Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the federal health care law. The laws also prevent Evers from rescinding federal Medicaid waivers approved under the Walker administration.

Another new law gives the Legislature, rather than newly sworn-in Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, the power to decide how to spend money obtained from lawsuit settlements.

The coalition's lawsuit hinges on the procedural move Republicans used to call themselves into what is known as an "extraordinary session." The lawsuit argues that the Wisconsin Constitution only allows for the Legislature to meet "at such time as provided by law" or in a "special" session, which is a session called by the governor. The lawsuit contends the session held in December didn't fit either category.

The groups that filed the lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court are the League of Women Voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and three Wisconsin voters.

Wisconsin Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called the lawsuit frivolous and said Democrats were "throwing a tantrum." Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday he was "absolutely, positively certain this lawsuit won't have merit."

He circulated a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Council — attorneys who advise lawmakers — that said the Legislature has the constitutional authority to determine its own rules. Furthermore, the memo said the Wisconsin Supreme Court has made clear that organizational issues like this are for the legislative branch to deal with "free from interference from the judicial branch."

"Courts are unlikely to aggressively interpret the law and inject themselves into the legislative process," said Rick Esenberg, head of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the governor expected such a legal challenge and that he would consult with his attorney about his next move.

"This legislation was a hasty and cynical attempt by Republicans to override the will of the people," Baldauff said Thursday.

Legislative "extraordinary sessions" are common in Wisconsin, but the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau said the session held in December was the first time it had been used to restrict the powers of an incoming governor and attorney general.

The lawsuit comes as state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, also filed a complaint with the Dane County district attorney seeking to void the lame-duck laws. Anderson is paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. He contends Republican lawmakers violated the state's open meetings law by not revealing when they would vote on the bills.

Anderson, who said he can't be in his chair more than 16 hours a day, missed the early morning vote that came after Republicans negotiated the bills in private all night long.

Tom Kamenick, another attorney with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said Anderson's allegation was baseless because the state Supreme Court has already ruled courts can't hear open meetings law complaints against the Legislature.

"I'm not aware of any cases or interpretations of open meetings law holding that a session can be 'too long' such that it excludes somebody," Kamenick said.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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  • sixstrings

    the lawsuit isn't questioning the authority of the legislature to limit the governor in this manner...it questions the procedure used to exercise that authority.

    this raises the question as to why the state constitution grants such authority to the legislature in the first place.

  • ROBOTIX JONES

    This just shows that Republicans don't care about Democracy. They only care about being in full control of everything no matter what the people want.

  • carcar

    It's like the Republicans seem desparate or something.

  • Kirby

    The "tantrum throwing" happened immediately after Republicans lost the election and decided to move power around so it would be as if they had won.

  • Truthful Opinion

    Republicans are sick human beings look at whats going on in NC 9th congressional district. Republican Mark Harris hires a felon that hired people to collect absentee ballots which is illegal. Votes were changed and some ballots were tossed in the trash to help Mark Harris win the US House seat. The NC GOP want Harris certified the winner anyway even though the election fraud investigation is still going on. You can bet your last dollar that if a Democrat had committed this kind of fraud and won would the GOP still want that person certified.......NO!

  • Moonshine Creek

    Waa, Waa, Waa. We didn't win so we're changing the rules. Who is the sore losers? In my eyes, it's no one but the GOP. I swear, today's republicans are the biggest babies. Keep voting them out America!!!

  • david

    The democratic party of WI are sore losers? You GOP cowards put this together AFTER YOU LOST, so who is the sore loser? This will all be overturned in due time, but not before causing a lot of problems. In the end, the real tragedy will be how much taxpayer $$ will be wasted having to sue the Traitorous GOP to overturn this ludicrous legislation.... Anyone that can support the GOP in it's current state is nothing but a traitor to this country, plain and simple.

  • snake

    North Carolina passed similar laws a few years ago after they lost the governorship and they are gradually being reversed by the state Supreme Court. If WI has election of the judges these laws will also be reminded.