Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi ruled today that the Joint Committee of Conference violated the Wisconsin Open Meetings law when it passed the budget repair bill limiting public employee bargaining rights on March 9, thereby voiding the subsequent law signed by Gov. Scott Walker.

The ruling was release just before 10 a.m. and takes up 18 pages.  Much of it provides a timeline as to the actions of the Republican Senate and Assembly leaders on March 9, the day of the infamous Joint Committee of Conference.

Sumi is clear in her opinion that the legislative leaders violated the open meetings law by not providing the 24-hour notice required for a meeting or even meeting the two-hour notice allowed for “good cause.”

“In accordance with the forgoing Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, and under the authority of State Statute 19.97(3), the court declares that the action of the Wisconsin Legislature Joint Committee of Conference on March 9, 2011 was and is void. Because the Legislature’s own rules make the Committee’s action a necessary precondition to subsequent legislative actions with respect to 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, those legislative actions have no force or effect,”

Sumi noted that a variety of violations occurred on March 9 through an intricate timeline.

  • 2:02 p.m.  Senate meets to call a special session Joint Committee of Conference to negotiate the differences between the approved Senate and Assembly versions of the bill. The Senate bill had all the fiscal items removed from it, so the 20-member majority was unnecessary to approve the bill. During the time, the 14 Democratic Senators were in Illinois to stall passage of the bill.
  • 3:30 p.m.  Senate Chief Clerk Robert Merchant tells the Senate leadership that no advance notice is needed for the joint committee since both the senate and assembly are in special session. At approximately the same time, the Senate Parlor is being prepared for the meeting. Only 20 seats are available for the public in this room.  Sumi notes another room in the capitol where Joint Finance Committee hearings are typically held is available.
  • 4:18 p.m. An email is sent to a pre-determined list of legislators noticing the Joint Committee of Conference.
  • 4:24 p.m. A notice is sent the The Wheeler Report, a news organization that is used by journalists covering Capitol events.
  • 5 p.m. The meeting notice is uploaded to the Capitol website, soon to be followed by a phone call from a Senate staffer to ensure the notice would be appear on the site prior to 6 p.m.
  • 6:03 p.m. the Joint Committee of Conference is called to order with Republican Sens. Scott Fitzgerald and Mike Ellis and Reps. Jeff Fitzgerald and Scott Suder in attendance. Democratic Sen. Mark Miller was present via phone and Rep. Peter Barca was in the parlor. Barca repeatedly objected to the meeting on the grounds of open meeting violations.
  • 6:06 p.m. Barca begins to read the Open Meetings Law from the statues, but is cut off on minute later as the roll is called. The revised bill without fiscal items, but still containing the restrictions on collective bargaining passes the Joint Committee.
  • 6:14 p.m. The Senate (without the Democrats) passed the bill approved by the Joint Committee of Conference on an 18-1 vote. Sen. Dale Schultz (R-  votes no.

On March 10, the Assembly reconvenes to pass the newly approved bill from the Senate with the changes approved by the Joint Committee.  It passes on a 53-42 vote.

Walker signs the bill into law on March 11, leading to the expiration or termination of all state employee union contracts on March 13.

Sumi ruled the Joint Committee of Conference is a governmental body, subject to the Open Meetings Laws and that there is nothing in the Joint Rules of the Legislature that overrides the compliance with those laws. She noted the language in the law that requires “the doors of the each house be kept open except when the public welfare shall require secrecy.”

There was testimony during the lawsuit before Sumi that the Senate doors were locked around 6 p.m and that announcements were made in the Capitol prior to the meeting to clear the building. She said those actions were in violation of allowing public access to the meetings.

She also opined that judges do have the authority to determine whether the Legislature followed the Open Meetings Law because it is allowed in State Statute 19.97 and Article IV, Section 10 of the Wisconsin Constitution.

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) was in Illinois when the aforementioned events occurred and he was pleased with Sumi’s ruling.

“We’ve been saying this from the beginning,” Larson said. “It just shows that the Republican leadership did a power grab on this.”

He also reminded the public that Judge Sumi, even though a Dane County Judge, was appointed by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican.

“She is not a liberal; she use the fair treatment of the law in her ruling,” Larson said.

There have been rumors from the start of the lawsuits against Act. 10 that the Legislature could just reopen the issue and redo the vote to eliminate the questions of the open meeting violation.

Larson doesn’t know if that will happen, but he hopes his GOP colleagues won’t bring the bill back since the original fiscal problems given for the bill have been negated by the possible $600 million in surplus recently discovered.

“That whole premise is gone and this bill would just continue to divide the state,” he said. “If they do come back with it, we (the Democratic caucus) will work to remove the collective bargaining restrictions. They got the monetary concessions from the unions, they should leave the middle class alone.”

The WI Supreme Court had scheduled a hearing on an appeal to this lawsuit for June 6.  It is not known if that hearing will continue as scheduled or be postponed.

This story was originally published on ThirdCoast Digest.com

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