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Unions in court over laws limiting Wisconsin governor, AG powers



FILE- In this Jan. 22, 2019, file photo Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers during the Governor's State of the State speech at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. Behind Evers is Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate President Roger Roth. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Union attorneys and Gov. Tony Evers’ lawyers worked Monday to convince a judge to block laws Republicans passed during a lame-duck legislative session that weakened Evers’ and the attorney general’s powers, hoping to build on their momentum after a separate court enjoined the provisions indefinitely last week.

Republicans appealed last week’s ruling. Appellate judges could rule as soon as Monday on the GOP’s request to immediately reinstate the laws and put last week’s ruling on hold.

Evers has moved quickly to take advantage of the window before the appeals court acts. He ordered Attorney General Josh Kaul on Thursday to begin procedures to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit challenging the Affordable Health Care Act, a power taken away from him during the lame-duck session. On Friday he rescinded 82 of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s appointments confirmed during the lame-duck session.

Evers told reporters Monday that he was moving as quickly as possible to fill the 82 openings, but that he didn’t know if he could do it before the appellate court decides whether to reinstate the laws. People Walker appointed to nonpartisan positions could end up right back in their jobs, he said.

The laws also specifically ensured Walker’s choice to lead the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, Mark Hogan, would keep his job until September. With the laws blocked, Evers could fire him immediately but the governor said he had no plans to replace him.

Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess ruled Friday that the laws were illegally passed because the type of session lawmakers used to meet in December was unconstitutional. Republicans called themselves into an “extraordinary session” to pass the bills, but Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess said there was no basis in state law to call such sessions.

Republican lawmakers’ attorney, Misha Tseytlin, argued that the ruling jeopardizes the validity of thousands of other laws passed during extraordinary sessions. That case was brought by the League of Women Voters and other groups.

The lawsuit heard Monday was filed by a coalition of five unions. They argue that the laws violate the state constitution’s separation of powers doctrine because they take power from the executive branch and transfer it to the Legislature. Republicans counter the laws balance power between the two branches.

The unions’ attorney, Matthew Wessler, told Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington the laws are an “egregious attempt to override the democratic process for political gain.” Evers’ attorney, Lester Pines, said the laws “hobble” the executive branch.

Tseytlin insisted that the branches share power under the laws.

“It’s a cooperative regime,” he told Remington at one point as he and the judge debated a provision requiring the attorney general to get legislators’ permission before settling cases.

Remington grilled the attorneys for four hours, going through each of the laws, section by section, and demanding both sides defend their positions on each provision.

He pledged to issue a written decision by the end of business Tuesday. He didn’t say how he would rule but did reveal he will deny Tseytlin’s motion to dismiss the case.

The lame-duck session laws gave lawmakers, rather than the governor, the power to withdraw the state from lawsuits. That blocked Evers from fulfilling a campaign promise to get Wisconsin out of a federal lawsuit seeking repeal of the federal health care law.

The laws also require the attorney general to seek approval from the Legislature’s budget-writing committee before settling any case and to deposit settlement winnings in the state general fund rather than in state Department of Justice accounts. The laws also rework voting regulations, restrict early in-person voting to the two weeks preceding an election and loosen requirements for military and overseas voters.

A federal judge already struck down the early voting restrictions as unconstitutional in a separate lawsuit. The state Democratic Party has filed a fourth lawsuit challenging the lame-duck laws in federal court.

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