MADISON — Days after a judge put the laws on hold, courtroom proceedings began Monday in another legal challenge to Republican laws that curtailed the powers of incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul.
Meanwhile, a state appeals court could rule as soon as Monday afternoon on a request by Republican lawmakers in the first lawsuit to put the controversial laws back in place.
The recent flurry of courtroom action has consumed much of the energy in the state Capitol as state leaders await a legal verdict on the future of the laws. They limit the attorney general’s ability to end the state’s participation in lawsuits, target the governor's power to run the state economic-development agency and advance administrative rules, and limit early voting hours.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Frank D. Remington convened a court Monday morning in the second lawsuit, brought by a group of labor unions.
It contends the GOP laws violate the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, and it asks the court to bar state officials from implementing or enforcing the challenged provisions. It also argues the laws, by giving new authority to legislative committees to halt the state’s role in litigation or to suspend state agency rules indefinitely, violate state constitutional requirements for legislative quorums.
Plaintiffs in the case include Service Employees International Union, Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers, American Federation of Teachers and Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals; and nine individual plaintiffs including state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Mason.
Attorneys for Evers and Kaul told the court in Monday's hearing that the laws interfere with the ability of the governor and attorney general to fulfill their duties.
Lester Pines, an attorney for Evers, said the state Constitution makes enforcing the law a function of the executive branch. But Pines said some challenged provisions of the GOP laws violate that principle -- including those allowing lawmakers to decide if the state will withdraw from or settle litigation, or allowing lawmakers to intervene in a court challenge to the validity of a state statute.
With those provisions, the Legislature "has granted itself the power to be enforcing the law," Pines told the court. "That is what the problem is; that is what the overreach is."
Misha Tseytlin, the former state solicitor general now serving as private counsel to GOP lawmakers, argued in the hearing that the structure of those provisions is like the state Building Commission, in which lawmakers and the executive branch jointly decide which state building projects to approve.
Tseytlin said the provisions allowing lawmakers to get involved in legal challenges to a statute ensure that all state laws will be defended in court -- even if the Attorney General declines to. Evers and Kaul have declined to defend the lame-duck laws in court.
“If the Legislature did not have a seat at the table, what was happening in this courtroom today would look a lot different. Everybody would be sitting over there," Tseytlin said, gesturing to the plaintiffs' side of the courtroom where attorneys for plaintiffs, Evers and Kaul were seated.
The hearing unfolded as the state Capitol continued to feel the fallout of another ruling on Thursday that temporarily put on hold the GOP laws. They were enacted by Republican lawmakers and former Gov. Scott Walker in a December lame-duck session just before Evers and Kaul took office.
GOP lawmakers asked a state appeals court Friday to put the lame-duck laws back in place, and filings are due for that request Monday afternoon.
Plaintiffs in that case argued the so-called "extraordinary session" used to enact the laws -- in which lawmakers call themselves into action outside of a regular session -- are invalid and not sanctioned by law or the state constitution. Those plaintiffs included the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Disability Rights Wisconsin and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities.
By targeting the session in which the laws were passed, that ruling also temporarily vacated 82 appointments by former Gov. Scott Walker to state councils, boards and other bodies that senators confirmed during the December extraordinary session.
Tseytlin, in that case, has argued the ruling “is already causing serious harm to our state” and could undermine more than 300 other laws or resolutions enacted during extraordinary sessions n the last four decades.
The flurry of courtroom action has consumed much of the energy in the state Capitol in recent days as state leaders await a legal verdict on the future of the laws.