The Wisconsin Supreme Court plans to issue a landmark ruling tomorrow on the constitutionality of Gov. Scott Walker’s law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. The court said it would also release decisions later in the week on cases challenging the requirement of voters to show photo identification at the polls and the state’s domestic partner registry. But the rulings in those two cases aren’t likely to have as broad of an immediate impact, given ongoing lawsuits in federal court.
The court’s decision on the union law, passed in 2011 and known as Act 10, will mark the end of the line for constitutional challenges to the ban that spurred protests as large as 100,000 people and led to the recall election against Walker and a host of state lawmakers.
The law has already been upheld by a federal appeals court in two separate cases, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a majority of conservative justices that previously struck down a case arguing the Legislature violated the open meetings law in the process of passing Act 10.
Attorney Lester Pines, who is representing the Madison teachers union in the challenge, said he hoped the court would find at least some parts of the law are unconstitutional. If it’s upheld, however, Pines said the three years fighting it have given public sector unions time to regroup and figure out how to operate in a world without collective bargaining for anything beyond base wage increases tied to inflation.
The law also bars automatic withdrawals from members’ paychecks and requires annual elections to see if members want their unions to go on representing them.
Madison teachers, along with a Milwaukee public workers union, argued that the law violates workers’ constitutional rights to free assembly and equal protection.
A Dane County judge in September 2012 found major portions of the law to be unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court agreed to take the case, bypassing the state appeals court. One issue pending is whether the earlier ruling applied only to the two unions that brought the lawsuit, or all public-sector unions. The unions claim it applies to all local unions statewide, while Walker’s administration claims it does not.
State Department of Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck said it looks forward to the ruling and resolution of the case; she declined further comment.
Anger over the law led to Walker’s 2012 recall election. The union fight and subsequent recall victory, the first for a governor in U.S. history, helped catapult Walker onto the national stage, putting him in the mix for a potential 2016 presidential bid. He’s running for re-election this year and is expected to face Democrat Mary Burke, a former state Commerce Department secretary and Trek Bicycle Corp. executive. Burke supports collective bargaining, but has not promised to attempt to overturn Act 10 if elected.
Decisions on a pair of cases about voter ID, another GOP initiative, are expected to have a limited impact because a federal court in April struck down Wisconsin’s law as unconstitutional. To reinstate the 2011 law, which has been on hold since 2012, the legal challenges in both state and federal court would have to be defeated. The cases before the Supreme Court were brought separately by the League of Women Voters and the NAACP.
And the effect of Thursday’s domestic registry decision will also be muted given that the state’s 2006 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was struck down by a federal court judge in June. That decision has been appealed and oral arguments are scheduled Aug. 26 in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Three years after voters approved the gay marriage ban, then-Gov. Jim Doyle and the then-Democratic controlled Legislature passed the domestic registry law, giving same-sex couples benefits such as hospital visitation rights. That law was challenged by the conservative group Wisconsin Family Action, but remains in effect, so a ruling finding it unconstitutional would put the roughly 2,300 couples on the registry in limbo.
Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, said she was surprised the Supreme Court was issuing a decision given that the same-sex marriage ban is in front of the federal circuit court. If that is struck down, then “we have no case” against the domestic partner registry, she said.