(Reuters) – The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday upheld a last-ditch Republican move late last year to curb the powers of incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers, ruling that passing such measures in lame-duck sessions is constitutionally permissible.
The 4-3 decision overturned a lower court ruling in March that had blocked the legislation, criticized by Democrats as a power-grab. Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niesshad found that the state legislature’s use of an “extraordinary session” was unlawful.
“We hold that the extraordinary sessions do not violate the Wisconsin constitution because the text of our constitution directs the legislature to meet at times as ‘provided by law,’” Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley wrote for the majority.
A state statute gives the legislature discretion to set its work schedule, including meeting during “an extraordinary session,” she added.
Evers slammed the decision as a politically-motivated “attack on the will of the people, our democracy, and our system of government,” while Republican legislative leaders called the failed challenge a special interest-driven waste of taxpayer money.
The case, brought by the Wisconsin League of Women Voters and other groups, was one of several court challenges to the December 2018 party-line votes by the Republican-led legislature to weaken Evers’ authority as governor.
In a case brought by labor unions, a second lower court judge, Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington, blocked several of the laws passed during the December lame-duck session.
The partisan battle involving all three branches of Wisconsin’s state government mirrors skirmishes in North Carolina and Michigan where Republican lawmakers pursued similar moves after Democratic victories last November.
Among the power-curbing effects of the legislature’s measures, which were signed by outgoing Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, are limits on the governor’s ability to put administrative rules in place and a prohibition from killing a work requirement for Medicaid recipients.
The legislation also allows lawmakers, rather than the attorney general, to decide whether to withdraw the state from lawsuits. That prevents Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul from fulfilling a campaign promise to end Wisconsin’s challenge to the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
The three dissenting justices on the Wisconsin court said the ruling “subverts the plain text” of the constitution, asserting that the December session was not provided by statute.
“Ultimately, if the legislature wanted to meet in December 2018 in accordance with the constitution, it should have passed a bill to authorize extraordinary sessions, as it has done in the past,” Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet wrote.
Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas and Tom Brown