In yet another twist in Wisconsin's bitter fight over unions, a judge Thursday struck down the Republican-sponsored bill to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights, moving the battle to the state Supreme Court.
Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi ruled that the Legislature violated the state's open meetings law in approving the bill championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that sparked massive protests and the flight of 14 Democratic senators to Illinois in a futile effort to prevent its passage.
The state Supreme Court is scheduled to decide June 6 whether to hear the case.
As the Wisconsin fight intensifies — with six Republican and three Democratic senators facing recall elections, most likely July 12 — union workers and their allies in Ohio are halfway toward their goal of collecting more than 450,000 signatures to put a measure on the fall ballot that would repeal that state's anti-union law, which sharply curtails the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
The recall proponents need to gather 231,149 valid signatures by the end of June. They say they had collected 214,399 signatures as of last week.
In Wisconsin, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, said, "The Supreme Court is going to have the ultimate ruling," adding that the bill is "still a critical part of balancing Wisconsin's budget."
Walker's office referred calls to the Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, who said, "We look forward to the reforms of the budget repair bill being enacted in the near future."
In Washington, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka cheered Sumi's decision, saying it "underscores the point that when people's rights are blithely violated, our politics is broken."
Wisconsin's Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca added: "Gov. Walker cost the taxpayers by refusing to respectfully sit across the table from his employees, look them in the eye and take yes for an answer on the benefit concessions they offered."
Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he expected the Supreme Court to resolve the issue quickly. If the GOP-led Legislature should lose, it could pass the same bill again, he said.
But the recall elections may complicate things because they could cost Republicans their Senate majority. If the Legislature has to act again, "the closer such a vote is to July 12, the more it reinvigorated the issue for the recall voters," Franklin said.
Sumi, appointed to the bench by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, earlier had put the law on hold, finding that legislators provided two hours' advance notice of the meeting, instead of the 24 hours required by state law.
But Steven Means, executive assistant in the state attorney general's office, contended that the Legislature could provide less than 24 hours' notice "for good cause" and saw the judge's ruling as interfering with the legislative process.
In addition to ending collective bargaining for most state workers, the Wisconsin law would require them to pay more for healthcare and pensions, amounting to an 8% pay cut.