A Dane County judge struck down Gov. Scott Walker's controversial collective bargaining law on Thursday, ruling that a legislative committee law violated the state's open meetings law when it hastily convened to amend the measure.
The ruling by Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi won't end the legal fight over the law, which sharply curtails the collective bargaining rights of most public employees in Wisconsin.
An appeal of Sumi's decision is all but certain. And the state Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on June 6 over whether to take the case immediately in response to an earlier request by the state Department of Justice and state Department of Administration challenging Sumi's authority to act in the case.
The high court also has yet to rule on an appeal by DOJ lawyers that was filed after Sumi issued a restraining order in March barring implementation of the law.
In concluding her 30-page decision, Sumi pointed out that she isn't ruling on the legality of the law itself.
"It is not the court's business to determine whether 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 is good public policy or bad public policy," Sumi wrote. "It is this court's responsibility, however, to apply the rule of law to the facts before it."
Walker had no comment on the ruling. DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch said the case would be pursued before the Supreme Court.
State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, who was the lone Democrat at the March 9 legislative conference committee meeting, applauded the ruling.
"This ruling sets an important precedent that when the Legislature meets, the people must have a seat at the table," Barca said. "This is a huge victory for Wisconsin democracy."
During the meeting, Barca accused Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of violating the open meetings law.
At the heart of Sumi's decision is whether the conference committee that met on March 9 to whittle fiscal elements from what was then Walker's budget repair bill had given proper public notice of its meeting under the state's open meetings law.
The law requires 24 hours' notice, or two hours' notice if "good cause" is shown. Sumi ruled that neither standard was met. Because of that, she wrote, the law is void.
"The court must consider the potential damage to public trust and confidence in government if the Legislature is not held to the same rules of transparency that it has created for other governmental bodies," Sumi wrote. "Our form of government depends on citizens' trust and confidence in the process by which our elected officials make laws, at all levels of government."
Fitzgerald said the state Supreme Court will have the ultimate say in the matter.
"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," Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald's brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, maintained that the law was passed according to the rules of the Legislature.
But in her ruling, Sumi said Senate Chief Clerk Rob Marchant could cite no specific rule, other than "custom, usage and precedent," that allowed the conference committee meeting to take place without the required public notice. She wrote that allowing such unwritten exemptions to the law "would open the door to evasion" of the law's mandates.
Republicans have not said whether they would re-introduce the measure and did not address that on Thursday.
State Journal reporters Mary Spicuzza and Clay Barbour contributed to this report.
Wisconsin State Journal, Thurs May 26 2011