Wisconsin's conservative-controlled Supreme Court on Friday upheld lame-duck laws limiting the powers of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, handing Republican lawmakers a resounding victory.
The victory was on procedural grounds only and the ruling isn't the end of the legal challenges. Two other challenges to the laws themselves and not the process used to pass them are pending. One of those is in federal court, a move that Democrats hope gives them a better shot at sidestepping conservative judges.
Most of the laws have been reinstated and are in effect while the legal challenges proceed.
A group of liberal-leaning organizations led by the League of Women Voters sued in January alleging the laws are invalid because legislators convened illegally to pass them in December. The groups maintained the Legislature's session had ended months earlier and that the lame-duck floor session wasn't part of the Legislature's regular schedule.
But the Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, declared that the Wisconsin Constitution gives lawmakers the authority to decide when to meet.
"The terminology the Legislature chooses to accomplish the legislative process is squarely the prerogative of the Legislature," the conservative majority wrote. Three liberal justices dissented, saying the Legislature went beyond what is constitutionally allowable when it convened the lame-duck session.
Evers called the ruling a disappointment and said it was based on a "desired political outcome."
The president of the League of Women Voters of the United States said the ruling undermines the will of Wisconsin voters.
"The Wisconsin State Legislature's actions defied the democratic process, which is a major blow to our democracy as a whole," Chris Carson said.
Republican legislative leaders who orchestrated the lame-duck session heralded the ruling, calling it a "common sense decision."
"This lawsuit, pursued by special interests and Governor Evers, has led to an unnecessary waste of taxpayer resources," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a joint statement. "We urge the governor to work with the Legislature instead of pursuing his political agenda through the courts."
Republican legislators in several states have passed laws in lame-duck sessions following election losses in recent years. In addition to the Wisconsin provisions, outgoing Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed lame-duck measures in December to weaken minimum wage and paid sick time laws. North Carolina Republicans approved a sweeping package of restrictions on incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in a December 2016 lame-duck session. Democrats have decried the tactics as brazen attempts to hold onto power.
Wisconsin's laws prohibit Evers from ordering Kaul to withdraw from lawsuits, a move designed to prevent Evers from fulfilling a campaign pledge to withdraw Wisconsin from a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. Evers pulled the state from the lawsuit while the lame-duck provisions were on hold in March and the court's ruling Friday will not undo that action.
The laws also require Kaul to get permission from the Legislature's Republican-controlled finance committee before settling lawsuits, and force him to deposit settlement awards in the state general fund rather than in state Department of Justice accounts. The provisions also guarantee Republican lawmakers the right to intervene in lawsuits using their own attorneys rather than Kaul's DOJ lawyers. All three provisions signal Republicans don't trust Kaul to defend GOP-authored laws in court.
Other sections of the laws restrict early in-person voting to the two weeks before an election. The cities of Madison and Milwaukee, both Democratic strongholds, held early voting for six weeks leading up to last November's elections. Republicans hoped the shorter window would tamp down Democratic turnout in 2020, but a federal judge blocked the restrictions in January and the state's ruling does not trump that.
The Supreme Court's decision to uphold the laws wasn't unexpected given conservative justices hold a 4-3 majority on the court. They dismantled the liberal-leaning organizations' allegations during oral arguments in May, saying the Legislature can convene whenever it chooses.
The state court challenge was filed by unions who argue the laws steal authority from the governor and attorney general in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. That challenge is before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The state Democratic Party has filed a federal lawsuit contending the laws are meant to punish Evers' supporters in violation of free speech and equal protection guarantees.