The Wisconsin State Senate, which has the constitutional right to set its own rules of operation, adopted a resolution this morning that will find the 14 Wisconsin Democrat Senators who have fled the state to be held in contempt of the Senate.
According to Sen. President Mike Ellis, (R-Neenah) if the AWOL Democrat Senators do not return to the senate floor by 4 p.m. this afternoon, he will issue an order to the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms to have the missing senators arrested.
Law enforcement officers will be able to detain and return a senator to the Capitol if they are taken into custody within the state. Officers will not be allowed to cross into Illinois to retrieve the Wisconsin 14.
According to the Wisconsin State Constitution, Article 4, Section 7 -”Each house shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members; and a majority of each shall constitute a quorum to do business, but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may compel the attendance of absent members in such manner and under such penalties as each house may provide” (emphasis added).
Speaking on a Milwaukee radio program after the vote, Ellis said the absent senators are “in effect violating the right of the majority to function. And what does this mean in the future to our constitution or democracy? It would allow anyone to choose to walk out and close down state business.”
The punishment could range from a simple escort back to the Capitol, censure or even imprisonment, something Ellis said he would probably not use. But the option is there and after enacting rules to turn off copiers in the Democrat Senator’s offices, imposing a $100 fine on the missing for each session they miss and the possible resolution to put Democrat Senator staffers under the control of a Republican Senator, it would not be a surprise if the Republican majority exercised that right.
One of the wayward senators, Jim Holperin (D-Conover) faced a court challenge filed by a constituent to return to the state. The judge in the matter ruled yesterday that he could not force Holperin to return, adding the Senate“must enforce its own rules.”
Oconto County Circuit Court Judge Jay Conley denied the request saying he wasn’t sure that Holperin was violating his duty as a state senator and noting any damages the state may suffer as a result of Holperin’s absence were speculative. Holperin has said the court proceeding was just another tactic to bring the Democrats back to the state.
Milwaukee Senator Chris Larson is of the 14, and said the fines and turning off copy machines are simple bullying tactics from the GOP.
“What’s next? Are they going to demand our lunches and steal our fruit snacks? This is not going to work and we are standing firm,” Larson said. “They have gone around the bend and they’re crazy with power.”
Larson said the Republicans are continuing to divide the state and wage war on workers in Wisconsin. He added that yesterday his caucus met and not a single Democrat has flinched on their stand or plans to remain out of the state.
“They (the GOP) have shut down the public hearing, the public hotline and the Capitol. They have taken our staff and it is unfortunate that they continue to be divisive,” he said “With the staff takeover, they are over-stepping their bounds and bringing up a lot of constitutional questions. We were independently-elected representatives and were elected to represent our constituents. But my staff has been very strong and are putting up with this and continuing to work for the district.”
In a legal opinion to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Attorney James R. Troupis said according to the Constitution, attendance at sessions is mandatory and that the idea of a quorum “is not a grant of authority to a minoirty of the body to prevent it from acting and to frustrate the will of the majority.”
He also noted the Senate Rule 16 provides that members may not be absent from sessions during an entire day with first obtaining a leave of absence. According to the Senate clerk, none of the Wisconsin 14 have a leave of absence on record with his office.
And the court ruling that the Senate can enforce its own rules has precedent, with the Attorney General writing in 1929 that “Members of the Assembly, regardless of the number, in lawful session, can compel attendance of absent members in such manner…as are authorized by the Assembly itself.”
There are other precendents for this action by the Senate Republicans, as the United States Senate, Alaska State Senate and New Hampshire House have all requested the arrest of missing members so work could commence. The most recent was in 1988, when a majority of U.S. Senators directed the sergeant-at-arms to bring Sen. Bob Packwood to the chambers during a filibuster on campaign financing legislation. The Capitol Police carried the senator feet first into the Senate chamber.
Will something like this happen in Wisconsin? In this time of heightened political passions, it seems as though anything can happen.