Wisconsin lawmakers accused of breaking open meetings law

[JURIST] Republicans in the Wisconsin state legislature broke several state laws when they passed last month's controversial budget bill, charges Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne (D) [official website] in a complaint [PDF] filed Tuesday in a Wisconsin circuit court [official website]. Ozanne alleges the February 25 special session that enacted the Budget Repair Bill, or Senate Bill 11 [text, PDF], which strips public unions of the vast majority of their collective bargaining rights, was conducted in violation of Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law [Wis. Stat. § 19.81-19.98]. The law represents the codification of two provisions of the Wisconsin Constitution [text, PDF], which require that "[t]he right of the people to peacably assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged," [Article I § 4] and that "[t]he doors of each house shall be kept open except when the public welfare shall require secrecy." [Article IV, § 10]. The complaint also alleges that the meeting was held in violation of Joint Rule 3 of the Wisconsin Legislature [text], which sets minimum procedural standards for calling a roll call vote. According to the complaint:

No Joint Rule of the Wisconsin Legislature establishes a different procedure for providing public notice and public access to the meeting of the Joint Committee of Conference on January 2011 Special Assembly Bill 11 than is required by Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law.... The public notice for said meeting was insufficient as to reasonably likely apprise the public and the news media that the Joint Committee of Conference would consider, discuss, debate and act on a new version of of [the] Bill ... which had not been previously passed by the Senate[.]
Ozanne has asked the court to invalidate the law and forbid the secretary of state from publishing it. He also asks for a fine of $300 on each of the Republican legislators involved in the passage of the bill.

Oznne is the second public official to mount a legal challenge to the bill, following a suit filed by Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk (D) [official biography] filed a similar suit last week [MWJS report; complaint, PDF]. Falk's suit came immediately after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) [official website] signed the bill into law last week [JURIST report]. The provisions limiting bargaining rights incensed unions and their supporters, sparking protests which have been ongoing since February 15, when SB 11 was introduced to address the state's $3.6 billion deficit. Earlier this month, a Wisconsin judge ruled that the state capitol building must remain open [JURIST report] to the public during business hours, despite an attempt to close the building to protesters who had occupied it as part of a protest against the proposed restrictions on collective bargaining. The Wisconsin State Employees Union Council 24 (WSUE) [advocacy website] filed the petition earlier in the day in reaction to Walker ordering the capitol building closed and removing protesters.

 

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