Tag Archives: Brad Schimel

Court moves teen from Lincoln Hills to adult prison for safety

State prosecutors took the unusual step of acknowledging Lincoln Hills, Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison, is too dangerous for juveniles. They argued to move a teen into the adult system for his own protection, according to court documents released Wednesday.

Racine County Circuit Judge John S. Jude agreed that the prison was too dangerous and waived the boy into the adult system last February. The 2nd District Court of Appeals affirmed Jude’s decision Wednesday.

“I never thought I would say this, that a 16-year-old would be safer in the adult system than the juvenile justice system,” Jude said at the waiver hearing, according to the documents released Wednesday. Racine County case manager Candy Bowman testified that her department has “put somewhat of a moratorium” on sending juvenile offenders to Lincoln Hills. Racine County did not immediately respond to an inquiry about what, if any, moratorium exists.

The Lincoln Hills juvenile prison in Irma has been plagued by allegations of prisoner abuse, child neglect and sexual abuse assault. Racine County Circuit Judge Richard Kreul in 2012 wrote a letter alerting Gov. Scott Walker to a case in which a Lincoln Hills inmate was forced to perform oral sex on his roommate, beaten unconscious and not given medical attention for three hours. The state began an investigation into allegations of abuse at the facility in 2015. The FBI has since taken over the investigation.

No one has been charged with any crimes. Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel told The Associated Press last month it’s possible his office might re-launch its investigation and charge someone in connection with the alleged abuses. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has had its own investigation into the issues at Lincoln Hills for more than a year. Corrections Department spokesman Tristan Cook said the agency has made “significant and wide-reaching reforms” on juvenile corrections, including appointing new leadership, increasing training for staff, requiring body cameras for security staff and enhancing medical and health services to inmates.

The teen in the appeals court case released Wednesday was accused of sexually assaulting a fifth-grader. The teen argued Jude improperly considered news coverage that wasn’t part of the evidence and out-of-court information about Lincoln Hills. The juvenile’s lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The appellate court found the judge should not have considered the news reports but that he properly weighed the seriousness of the crime and how little time the teen would have had left for treatment in the juvenile system since he was 14 months away from turning 18.

 

Conservative court says DOJ doesn’t have to release Schimel videos

The Wisconsin Supreme Court this week rejected Democrats’ efforts to force the release of training videos featuring Republican Brad Schimel before he became attorney general, finding that he didn’t say anything inappropriate in them, as Democrats initially alleged, and that releasing them could hurt prosecutors and crime victims.

The recordings don’t reveal any misconduct and releasing them would reveal prosecutor strategies as well as re-traumatize victims in a high-profile sexual extortion case, the court’s conservative majority ruled in a 5-2 decision.

The state Democratic Party asked the state Department of Justice in 2014 to release videos of presentations on sexual predators that Schimel gave in 2009 and 2013, when he was the Waukesha County district attorney.

The 2009 video shows Schimel discussing prosecution strategies.

In the 2013 video, Schimel recounts a case in which a Waukesha County high school student posed as a woman online, obtained graphic pictures from male classmates and blackmailed them into sexual acts.

The Democrats’ demanded the videos during the height of Schimel’s attorney general campaign, alleging they showed him making ethnic and racial slurs, as well as sexist comments.

The DOJ refused to hand over the videos, arguing that they reveal prosecutorial strategies and could re-traumatize the blackmail victims.

That stance prompted Democrats to sue.

A Madison judge who viewed the videos found that Schimel didn’t make any inappropriate remarks and that no victims were identified by name.

Both the judge and a state appeals court ruled the videos should be released.

The DOJ allowed the Democrats’ attorney to view the videos, after which he dropped the misconduct claims, according to court documents.

The state Supreme Court sided with DOJ, ruling the videos don’t show any official misconduct and the lawsuit suggests a partisan purpose behind the request.

Writing for the majority, Justice Rebecca Bradley likened the 2009 video to prosecutors’ case files, which are exempt from Wisconsin’s open records law.

The video clearly contains discussions of tactics and could be widely disseminated online, helping criminals avoid detection, the court found.

Bradley acknowledged that Schimel doesn’t name any victims in the 2013 video, but she wrote that someone could figure out who they are from the context. That could re-traumatize them in violation of a state constitutional amendment that requires the state to treat crime victims with dignity, she wrote.

“The denial of public access occurs only in exceptional cases. This case presents one of those exceptional situations,” Bradley wrote. “The two videos requested here do not contain any evidence of official misconduct. Our review independently demonstrates that the reasons proffered (for withholding the videos) are sufficient and supported by the facts in this case.”

The court’s two liberal-leaning justices, Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, dissented.

Abrahamson wrote that the court should have ordered the videos released with sensitive information redacted.

She chastised the majority for suggesting that the request was politically motivated, noting that the open records law doesn’t require requestors to explain their motivation. She added the ruling offers no limits on when protecting victims trumps disclosure.

“What has the majority achieved with its opinion grounded in speculative, abstract, and unsubstantiated fears? The answer for me is: A dimming of the light on public oversight of government, especially in matters pertaining to criminal justice.”

A Democratic Party spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Judge orders probe of state’s failure to issue photo IDs to voters

A federal judge has ordered the state of Wisconsin to investigate reports that transportation workers are failing to issue temporary photo IDs for voting, as required by law.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson issued his order around the same time a civil liberties group filed a motion in a separate case demanding a federal appellate court invalidate voter ID requirements in Wisconsin because the state hasn’t abided by its pledge.

Under Wisconsin law, voters must show a form of government-approved photo identification at the polls. People who lack such identification can obtain free photo IDs at state Department of Transportation Division of Motor Vehicles field offices.

The agency in May announced that people who want IDs but lack the underlying supporting documents such as birth certificates could get a receipt valid for voting. The move was designed to blunt a pair of lawsuits alleging that voters who lack such documents face tough challenges in obtaining free photo IDs.

Peterson ruled in July that the DOT’s petition process to obtain the receipt was a “wretched failure” because it still left black and Hispanic citizens unable to obtain IDs. He ordered the state to quickly issue credentials valid for voting to anyone who enters the petition process but lack the necessary documents, including birth certificates.

The Nation published a story last week alleging that DMV workers at a field office told a man named Zack Moore that he couldn’t obtain a temporary ID because he lacked a birth certificate and that the way IDs were being handled was still up in the air. The story went on to say that Molly McGrath, the national campaign coordinator with VoteRiders, visited 10 DMV stations where employees gave people a wide range of answers about how long it would take to get an ID.

Moore tried to obtain his ID on Sept. 22. That was the same day Attorney General Brad Schimel filed an update with Peterson saying all DMV field staff had been trained to ensure anyone who fills out an application to enter the petition process will get an ID mailed to them within six days.

“These reports, if true, demonstrate that the state is not in compliance with this court’s … order, which requires the state to ‘promptly issue a credential valid as a voting ID to any person who enters (the petition process) or who has a petition pending,”” Peterson wrote.

He ordered the state to investigate and report back to him by Oct. 7.

Transportation spokeswoman Patricia Mayers called the stories of problems at the DMV offices “concerning and … not consistent with DMV protocol.” She said the agency has already launched an investigation and will report its findings to Peterson, as ordered.

“DMV remains committed to working with all eligible voters to ensure they receive free identification, as required for voting,” she wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion in a separate voter ID challenge before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The motion alleges that the DOT isn’t issuing voting credentials to people in the petition process and has violated its promise that anyone who goes to the DMV for photo IDs will get an ID with whatever documents they possess.

The ACLU alleged that DMV workers have failed to tell applicants the petition process exists, that applicants have had to make multiple visits to DMV offices and that workers have incorrectly told people that in order to begin the petition process, they need proof of identity such as a social security card — which can’t be obtained without a photo ID. As many as 1,640 eligible voters in Milwaukee County lack both ID and a Social Security card, the ALCU alleged.

The group also claimed that people who present birth certificates with misspellings haven’t been allowed to enter the process and DMV field offices offer limited hours. The motion asks the court allow voters who lack photo IDs to cast ballots by affidavit or completely invalidate the voter ID law.

“People who have started (the petition process) are supposed to get a temporary ID but as we’re seeing on the ground that’s not happening,” ACLU attorney Sean Young said in a telephone interview. “DMV employees aren’t implementing their own procedures. DMV cannot be trusted to this correctly.”

The state Department of Justice is defending the voter ID law in the case. DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said agency attorneys are reviewing the ACLU’s filing.

— By Todd Richmond, AP writer

Walker insists secret donations from companies he rewarded were legal

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker insists there was nothing illegal about corporate leaders’ donating to a conservative dark money group that helped him and Republican legislators fend off efforts to recall them from office.

Walker responded to questions about a Guardian report on the donations during a news conference in an Edgerton parking lot to highlight his transportation budget. The newspaper obtained more than 1,000 pages of leaked documents from a secret investigation into whether Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated with Wisconsin Club for Growth and other outside groups as he was fighting a bid to oust him from office over his signature law stripping most public employee unions of nearly all of their bargaining rights.

The state Supreme Court halted the investigation in 2015, ruling the coordination was legal since it didn’t lead to express advocacy, a political buzzword for ads that specifically call for a candidate’s defeat or election. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to consider whether to review that ruling later this month and the Guardian report has thrust the matter back into the headlines. The documents detail Walker and his fundraisers’ efforts to persuade business executives around the country to give to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a Koch-backed group that ran the ads.

Sounding irritated at times, Walker said no one has faced more scrutiny than he has during his six years as governor. Walker said that the courts have repeatedly found the investigation was baseless.

“This is old news,” the governor said. “You want to argue about something that’s already been discussed in the courts? Because people didn’t win in the courts under the law, they want to have a discussion where they’re giving out bits and pieces of information, trying to change the court of public opinion.”

Walker didn’t acknowledge working with the Club for Growth or even mention its name. Asked why he wouldn’t acknowledge having worked closely with it, he said only that he and his supporters were “under attack” in early 2011 after the union restrictions had passed and they thought it was important to get the message out about how the restrictions would help the state.

“We thought it was appropriate to get the message out about the facts, not talking about advocating for or against, expressly advocating for or against candidates, but getting the message out that the reforms would work and indeed they have and that’s what we focused in on,” Walker said.

The Guardian’s documents show that Harold Simmons was among the corporate executives who donated to the Club for Growth. Simmons was the owner of NL Industries, which was a major producer of lead that was used in paint before the practice was banned due to health risks. The documents show Simmons gave the club a total of $750,000 in 2011 and 2012 at the height of the recalls.

Walker and the Republican-led Legislature passed a law in 2013 retroactively shielding lead paint makers from liability and raising the amount of lead allowed in paint. That raised questions of whether the measure, which jeopardized the health of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites, was payback for the donations.

Walker said during the news conference that “nobody should be shocked. … I did what I said I was going to do.” He suggested that the timing was coincidental.

Lead paint is toxic. It can cause a range of health problems, especially in young children, when it’s inhaled or absorbed into the body. It can damage the brain, kidneys, nerves and blood. Lead can also cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures and even death.

Walker said that whoever leaked the documents to the Guardian, a British newspaper, committed a crime. John Doe investigations are akin to grand jury investigations that require documents to be kept secret. Walker told Milwaukee radio station WTMJ-AM earlier that he would support an investigation into who leaked the documents.

“I think those involved in law enforcement in this state, if they want people to take seriously the orders of the court, should certain do that no matter what the issue is. Otherwise what kind of a system do we live in?”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Rochester Republican, and two other GOP state representatives sent a letter to Attorney General Brad Schimel asking for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the leak. Schimel, a Republican, tweeted he was considering his options. His spokesman, Johnny Koremenos, declined to comment, saying Schimel wouldn’t discuss details that could jeopardize a potential or ongoing investigation.

Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.

 

2 Wisconsin Republicans call for loosening gun laws

In the wake of the nation’s largest mass shooting in Orlando by a man using a military assault weapon, two of the State  Assembly’s most conservative Republicans told The Associated Press they think Wisconsin should make firearms more accessible in the state.

State Rep. Bob Gannon, R-Slinger, said there’s no way to totally protect people in a free and open society. He said the state should reduce the number of gun-free zones, allow school personnel to carry a concealed weapon on school grounds and allow people to transport weapons in their car while on school grounds, all of which would make it easier for law-abiding citizens to protect their families and themselves.

Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, said Wisconsin gun laws shouldn’t be changed except to allow people to carry weapons on college campuses. Kremer introduced a bill this past session that would have allowed concealed weapons in college buildings. He introduced the measure after a gunman killed nine people at a community college in Oregon. The bill failed.

Other Republican lawmakers refused to address the issue of gun control at all. Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a statement that amounted to a sigh of resignation concerning gun violence: “Unfortunately,” he said, “those intent on killing will find a means to do so.”

Since Republicans took control of the governor’s office and both legislative houses in 2011, they’ve passed measures significantly relaxing Wisconsin’s gun laws. They adopted laws allowing Wisconsin residents to carry concealed weapons, eliminating a 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases and permitting off-duty, retired and out-of-state police officers to carry guns on school grounds.

They’ve resisted calls for tighter gun restrictions after every major mass shooting, insisting the government should instead focus on treating the mentally ill to prevent such incidents.

But they’ve yet to offer plans for identifying and increasing the treatment of mental illness. In fact, when they turned down federal money to expand Medicare in the state, they reduced the ability of many in the state to receive such services.

Gov. Scott Walker, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s offices did not respond to emails The Associated Press sent inquiring about whether they feel Wisconsin gun laws need to be changed.

Asked directly on June 15 about whether Wisconsin gun laws need to change, the governor sidestepped the question. First, he said, law enforcement has to step up its anti-terrorism efforts, particularly internationally. If people see something out of the ordinary, they should report it to police, the governor said.

Walker noted, however, that France’s tight gun restrictions, which include a prohibition on fully automatic weapons, didn’t stop terrorist attacks in Paris last year.

“You’ve got people committed to terrorist acts, they’re not following the law to begin with,” Walker said.

France, however, has far fewer gun deaths per capita than the United States. According to mortality statistics, even if France had a mass shooting as deadly as the Paris attacks every month, its annual rate of gun homicides would be lower than that of the United States, where an average of 27 people are shot dead every day of the year.

Republican Assembly Leader Robin Vos posted a Facebook message saying people shouldn’t allow those who want to politicize the Orlando shooting to push an anti-gun agenda. Everyone should take time to pray, he said, before they start offering solutions to a problem no one understands.

Madison reporting by The Associated Press’ Todd Richmond.

DNR concedes it can’t monitor wells to protect state’s water

In a move that environmental advocates say leaves Wisconsin’s water unprotected, Department of Natural Resources officials said they won’t consider the cumulative effect of high-capacity wells in permit decisions.

The DNR had been considering whether a well combined with other wells around it would harm the state’s waters. But Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, issued a legal opinion last month saying state law doesn’t give the DNR authority to consider wells’ cumulative effects.

The agency quietly posted a frequently asked questions page on its website Friday saying that it will abide by Schimel’s opinion. DNR spokesman James Dick issued a statement saying the agency has traditionally followed all formal attorney general opinions.

Schimel’s opinion came after an Appleton judge ruled last fall that environmental officials can’t impose groundwater monitoring requirements as a condition for high-capacity well permits.

Outagamie County Judge Mark McGinnis ruled from the bench that the state lacks the explicit authority to impose such requirements, and a Republican-backed 2011 state law eliminated the agency’s broad authority to create such requirements.

Business groups hailed the decision, saying it validates the law and prevents regulatory overreach.

“(The ruling) shows that the days of regulating by bureaucratic fiat are over,” Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s chamber of commerce, said in a press statement.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, said the decision set a terrible precedent and would prohibit the DNR from monitoring high-capacity wells’ impact on Wisconsin waters.

“Monitoring is a really common sense tool,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney for Clean Wisconsin. “If they’re not able to do that, there’s no accountability there.”

The extent of the DNR’s authority to regulate high-capacity wells, which the agency defines as a well that can that pump at least 70 gallons per minute, has been a hot-button issue in Wisconsin for years as factory farms sink more of them to supply water for their herds and other farmers look for large-scale ways to irrigate crops.

Conservationists fear the wells have been depleting groundwater, lakes and streams, particularly in the state’s central sands region. According to the DNR, more than 2,000 high-capacity wells currently operate in that area.

A state appeals court ruled in 2010 that the DNR has broad authority to consider how high-capacity wells might harm the state’s waters. Republican lawmakers reacted by passing a law the following year that prohibits state agencies from imposing any permit conditions that aren’t expressly laid out in state statute. Two months after Gov. Scott Walker signed the law, the state Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling saying the DNR has general authority. The high court didn’t consider the new law in its deliberations.

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Supreme Court deals Walker a blow on education case

A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court dealt Gov. Scott Walker a loss yesterday in upholding a ruling that preserves the independence of the state’s elected education secretary and denies the governor power of veto over the Department of Public Instruction.

The court’s conservative majority was split on whether to overturn its unanimous ruling from 20 years ago that solidified the state superintendent’s independence as head of the Department of Public Instruction. The high court’s 4–3 decision rejects arguments made by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel and upholds two lower court rulings.

The state constitution “requires the Legislature to keep the supervision of public instruction in the hands of officers of supervision of public instruction,” Justice Michael Gableman wrote for the majority. “To do otherwise would require a constitutional amendment.”

Superintendent Tony Evers has opposed overturning the law, saying the case was about preserving the office’s role as a nonpartisan constitutional officer in charge of implementing and overseeing education policy.

Evers hailed the ruling, calling it a “victory for public education and the future of our state.”

“More than anything else, this ruling provides much needed stability for our schools and the students they serve,” Evers said in a statement. “I hope we can now get back to focusing on what works best for our kids.”

Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson did not address the court’s ruling directly in his reaction. Instead, he said Walker would “continue to advocate for policies that prioritize student success.”

“Governor Walker is dedicated to challenging the status quo when it impedes the ability of parents, school boards, and students to get the best educational outcomes,” Evenson said.

Justice Department spokesman Johnny Koremenos said the agency is reviewing the decision and has no immediate comment.

The case focused on a 2011 law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Walker that gave the governor veto power over administrative rules pursued by the state superintendent. That raised questions about whether the law amounted to a violation of the 1996 state Supreme Court ruling that the office was independent of the governor’s control.

The state Justice Department argued that if the court’s 1996 ruling prohibits the Legislature from making a change to administrative rules, then the decision should be overturned. The department’s attorney argued that if the state superintendent is unhappy with the governor’s decision relative to rules, he can always go back to the Legislature and try to get it reversed.

The law is unconstitutional because it does not allow DPI and the secretary “to proceed with their duties of supervision without the Governor’s, and in some circumstances the Secretary of Administration’s approval,” Gableman wrote.

The 2011 law required all state agencies to get approval from the governor before drafting new administrative rules — the legal language that enacts agency policies and laws passed by the Legislature. Under previous law, the rules were written by state agencies and reviewed by the Legislature, but not the governor, before taking effect.

Parents and members of the teachers’ union, with backing from organizations representing school administrators and school boards, filed a lawsuit in 2011 challenging the portion of the law that gives the governor the ability to block rules at DPI. They argued that the law gives the governor more power than the independently elected state superintendent, contrary to the court’s 1996 ruling.

The 1996 ruling arose from a case challenging then-Gov. Tommy Thompson’s attempt to transfer powers from DPI into a new Department of Education under the control of the governor. At the time, the court unanimously ruled that the state superintendent is in charge of education policy in Wisconsin and that the governor and Legislature can’t give “equal or superior authority” to anyone else.

Those supporting the governor’s position and opposing Evers include School Choice Wisconsin, a group that advocates for taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools, and the state chamber of commerce.

Gableman was joined in the majority ruling by Justices David Prosser, Anne Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson. Those dissenting were Chief Justice Pat Roggensack and justices Annette Ziegler and Rebecca Bradley.

The dissenting justices argued that those challenging the law had not proven that it was unconstitutional.

Wis. Republicans hand over local control to corporate America

There’s a theory in politics — subsidiarity — that maintains higher levels of government should handle only tasks that cannot be accomplished at lower levels. National defense is a good example of how that theory works; it’s not left to each state or city to defend itself.

In that spirit, the Republican Party’s stated goal is to reduce the power and scope of the federal government. State government, their argument goes, is more democratic and accountable than Washington. State officials have a deeper understanding of the unique challenges, values and goals of their constituents. And in turn, local office-holders have a deeper understanding of their own constituents than does the state.

It’s not an unreasonable position, until you start to distort it beyond recognition. And that’s exactly what Wisconsin Republicans have done.

First, to show their disdain for the feds, Wisconsin Republicans made a great show of turning down federal funds after capturing control of state government in 2011. Showily flexing his ideological bicep, Gov. Scott Walker turned down about $2 billion for Medicare expansion, high-speed rail development, and high-speed internet expansion in the state. It didn’t seem to bother him or his GOP colleagues that a portion of that money would originally came from Wisconsin taxpayers. Nor did it seem to concern them that the move cost the state thousands of jobs, as well as expanded health care and an improved business environment. Wisconsin now has the second-highest insurance rates in the nation.

In short, your representatives at the state level cut off your nose to spite Washington’s face — all in the name of local empowerment.

Yet, in a glaring philosophical disconnect, Wisconsin’s Republican leaders also believe — in the strongest way possible — that the virtues of local control come to a screeching halt at the doors of the state Capitol. Ever since they’ve commanded the state, Republicans have engaged in an unprecedented usurpation of municipal, village and other local government bodies’ powers in order to stop them from interfering with the moneyed interests that feather their nests.

A memo issued earlier this year by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau detailed more than 100 ways in which the Republican Legislature and the governor have eliminated local control while also increasing the number of unfunded mandates — i.e., costs — passed on to local communities. The Republicans’ actions have made it impossible for many local elected officials to balance their budgets while providing services for their constituents. That’s one of the reasons your potholes don’t get filled.

Just a few weeks ago, in his latest assault at local control, Walker signed a law taking away the power of local jurisdictions to protect their water. The Republican-backed law forbids municipalities from stopping property owners who want to develop land or transfer properties to erect projects that could harm local water supplies. According to the new law, in legal cases where property owners are at odds with local ordinances protecting natural resources, presiding judges must rule in favor of the property owners over the good of nearly everyone else.

That law was part of what the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters calls a “developers’ grab bag,” which along with a comparable “polluters’ grab bag,” has given polluting industries and land developers free rein over the state’s natural resources by granting them authority over local governments.

Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel has done his part to support this campaign, which makes corporations not just people but Super People. In mid-May, he ruled that environmental officials at the Department of Natural Resources cannot make decisions about high-capacity wells in order to prevent damage to local water supplies — not if Big Ag disagrees with those decisions. Schimel’s ruling puts the state’s groundwater, lakes and streams in jeopardy.

It’s not only environmental authority that the state’s GOP leaders have usurped. In the past legislative session, Republican changes included disrupting Wisconsin’s popular and cost-effective system of delivering services to seniors and those with disabilities. The party opted instead to turn those services over to for-profit companies. Republicans are also interfering with local school board elections.

By electing a solid Republican majority, voters in the state have empowered their own disempowerment while making very rich strangers even richer.

How’s that for subsidiarity?

GOP puts business, not science, in control of state’s water

Wisconsin’s expert environmental officials lack broad authority to regulate high-capacity wells, Attorney General Brad Schimel said this week in a formal opinion.

Schimel said, in effect, that business interests must trump any negative impacts on the state’s water supply in making decisions about high-capacity wells.

The attorney general’s opinion will dramatically reduce the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to oversee high-capacity wells, putting the state’s groundwater, lakes and streams at risk, conservationists predicted.

“It’s bad,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, senior attorney for Clean Wisconsin, which works to protect the state’s air and water. “It’s a huge step backward for groundwater protection compared to what we have now.”

The GOP and environmentalists have been quarreling for years over how much power the DNR has over high-capacity wells. The issue has grown more intense as more factory farms sink high-capacity wells to hydrate their herds and other farmers search for large-scale irrigation methods. Conservationists say the wells are depleting groundwater, lakes and streams, particularly in the state’s central sands region.

According to the DNR’s website, the agency currently reviews each high-capacity well application to see if the well, combined with other wells in that area, will adversely affect the state’s waters. If the agency determines the wells’ cumulative impact would be harmful, it can impose conditions on the well or deny the application.

A state appeals court ruled in 2010 that the DNR could take that approach, finding the agency has broad authority to regulate high-capacity wells and impose permit conditions. That decision prompted Republican legislators to pass a law in 2011 prohibiting agencies from imposing permit conditions that aren’t spelled out in statute.

The state Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling later that same year, finding the DNR has general authority to police high-capacity wells. The high court didn’t consider the new law, because it didn’t become final until after oral arguments were complete.

Assembly Republicans have complained the DNR’s approach is too burdensome for businesses and has resulted in a backlog of applications. Looking to clear the path for applicants, they asked Schimel for a formal opinion in February on whether anything grants the DNR authority to go beyond its statutory powers.

Schimel, a Republican, wrote the responsibility for protecting the state’s waters lies with the Legislature, not the DNR. The Supreme Court didn’t consider the new law because it took effect after the justices handed down their decision, he said. Therefore, the new law takes precedence.

That means the DNR can’t impose well-monitoring conditions or consider the cumulative impact wells are having on an area’s water levels, the attorney general said.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who controls the DNR, is notorious for what environmentalists call his attacks on the state’s natural resources. He invariably prioritizes the needs of large corporations over conservation and environmental damage.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, issued a statement calling Schimel’s opinion “a victory for the people of Wisconsin.”

Louis Weisberg contributed to this report.

 

Judge rules state’s right-to-work law is unconstitutional

A judge struck down Wisconsin’s right-to-work law, which prohibits businesses and unions from making agreements that require all workers, not just union members, to pay union dues.

Three unions filed a suit challenging the law shortly after Gov. Scott Walker approved it in March 2015. The unions argued that the law allowed for unconstitutional seizure of union property, since it forced unions to extend benefits to workers who don’t pay dues.

Dane County Circuit Judge agreed, adding in his decision that “the impact of (the law) over time is threatening to the unions’ very economic viability.”

Although 24 other states have right-to-work laws and none has been struck down on the grounds he cited, Foust said he was not obligated to follow other rulings because each state has a different constitution. Last year, Foust declined to put the right-to-work law on hold pending his decision.

Walker, who once said he had no plans to enact such a law, touted the state’s passage of right-to-work as one of his proudest achievements while stumping for the Republican presidential nomination during his brief, ill-fated run.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, promised to appeal the decision and said he was confident it would not stand, The Associated Press reported. Schimel has not made a decision on whether to seek an immediate suspension of the ruling while the appeal is pending, according to AP.

Walker dismissed the decision, sending out a tweet that said, “We are confident Wisconsin’s freedom-to-work law is constitutional and will ultimately be upheld.”

Conservatives hold a 5–2 majority on the state’s Supreme Court. All five in the majority are loyal to Walker and the state’s Republican leadership. On April 5, Walker-appointed Justice Rebecca Bradley won re-election to a 10-year term on on the bench with the help of the Republican Party and an estimated $2.5 million from corporate super PACs that support Walker and Wisconsin’s GOP.

“Once again, a liberal Dane County judge is trying to legislate from the bench,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement following the ruling. “No one should be forced to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.”

Walker said the right-to-work law would stimulate job growth in the state, but last year more than 10,000 Wisconsin workers were laid off — the largest number since Walker took office.

“The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest quarterly jobs numbers found Wisconsin now ranks 40th in private-sector job growth over the past four years, dead last among the 10 Midwest states,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca in a statement to the press.

He and other Wisconsin Democrats praised the ruling as a victory for middle- and working-class residents of the state.

“The extreme right-wing Republican agenda has been incredibly harmful to working people and businesses in Wisconsin,” Barca said in the statement. “Middle class Wisconsin workers are in crisis and so-called ‘right to work’ laws have been shown to drive down wages and economic growth.”

“Just over a year ago, at the committee hearing on the damaging right-to-work scheme, Republicans abruptly shut down debate, silenced the voices of those who waited for hours to be heard, and forced a vote on a bill that diminishes worker health and safety and increases poverty,” said Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson noted in a statement.

“At a time when Walker and legislative Republicans are choosing corporate profiteering and special interests over protecting the rights of our neighbors, today’s court decision restores the voice of the majority of the people in Wisconsin who know that right-to-work laws are wrong for Wisconsin.”