The Wisconsin Supreme Court halted what would have been the first trial addressing a new state agency transparency law, which was among several bills Republicans passed during a special session in December and signed by outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The court reversed a lower court’s holds on other laws passed during the special session, handing a victory to Republican legislators.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the Supreme Court’s ruling was "a win for the people of Wisconsin."
"The Supreme Court correctly decided the statutes enacted by the Legislature should remain in effect," he said in a statement. "We are confident that the constitutionality of these laws will be upheld when the court hears the full case in the coming months."
Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess blocked the laws in March, arguing Republican lawmakers illegally convened a special session to pass them after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers beat Walker in November's midterm election. The 3rd District Court of Appeals halted Niess' ruling by granting Republican leadership’s request for a stay. Now the state Supreme Court has reversed Niess’ ruling.
The laws in question prohibited future governors or attorneys general from withdrawing the state from lawsuits without the Legislature's approval. Another prevented the Attorney General’s Office from settling lawsuits without the Legislature’s approval, and requires it to deposit settlement awards into the state's general fund instead of the state’s Department of Justice accounts. Another granted the Legislature the right to intervene in lawsuits using legislative attorneys instead of state justice department lawyers. These are no longer on hold.
The two-day trial scheduled to start Wednesday before Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington was cancelled. State agency representatives planned to testify about the difficulty of implementing the law that requires them to make agency information public and transparent (guidance documents), and allows for a 21-day public comment period.
Judge Remington blocked part of the law earlier this year, which required the work to be done by July 1, and the Supreme Court said it would now take the case.
The Supreme Court’s ruling keeps two lame-duck laws on hold: one that limited early voting and the guidance documents measure.
Lester Pines, an attorney for Evers, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that state agencies will be slower in their response time to routine questions from the public because of the 21-day public comment rule.
“The Court’s decision reminds circuit courts that they don’t have the final word on a statute’s constitutionality and need to be more careful about blocking the operation of laws while they are being appealed,” Rick Esenberg, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty President and General Counsel, told The Center Square. “While it doesn’t reach the merits of the challenge to the laws in question, I think it strongly suggests that the plaintiffs have an uphill battle.”