Judge temporarily blocks Wisconsin anti-union law

MADISON, Wis Fri Mar 18, 2011 4:26pm EDT

Massive crowds gather to see the 14 democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker as crowds continued to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, March 12, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

Massive crowds gather to see the 14 democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker as crowds continued to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, March 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Darren Hauck

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MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Friday temporarily blocked a controversial new law in Wisconsin that strips public employee unions of key collective bargaining rights.

Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi granted a restraining order stopping official publication of the bill, which was passed by the Midwestern state's Republican-controlled legislature and signed by its Republican Governor Scott Walker last week.

Her ruling did not overturn the law but effectively blocked it while she considered a lawsuit filed by the Dane County district attorney, who has argued Republican lawmakers violated state open meetings laws by failing to give adequate notice of the vote.

Sumi still has to rule on the merit of the lawsuit, which asked that the law be voided. Even if it were overturned, Republicans could return to the legislature, where they control both houses, and pass it again in compliance with the open meetings laws.

"We are confident the provisions of the budget repair bill will become law in the near future," said Cullen Werwie, Walker's spokesman.

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, said an appeal of the judge's restraining order would be filed next week. "The Legislature and the Governor, not a single Dane County Circuit Court Judge, are responsible for the enactment of laws," he said.

POLARIZING LAW

The judge's order gave public workers in the state more time to bargain new and better contracts with municipal authorities -- deals that could allow them to skirt the law's strict measures during the length of those contracts.

The lawsuit, filed by Dane County district attorney Ismael Ozanne, says lawmakers violated the law and state rules by holding a committee meeting with only two hours notice and at a time when the Capitol building was closed to the public.

A companion lawsuit being heard by Judge Sumi says the legislation contained fiscal items that required a quorum in the Senate. Republicans had maneuvered around a boycott of the Senate's 14 Democrats by stripping out what they said were fiscal elements.

State representative Peter Barca, the top Democrat in Wisconsin's Assembly, said Republicans had violated long-standing rules "because they realized how unpopular and undemocratic this legislation was."

The law polarized the state, among the first to give public employees the right to unionize, triggering the biggest protests since the Vietnam War and making Wisconsin a focal point of a national debate over unions and the public purse.

Other states with Republican governors have mulled similar measures curbing collective bargaining by teachers, highway workers, nurses and other public servants.

Walker, who signed the bill after weeks of protests in the state capital, has said it is aimed at protecting taxpayers and employment, arguing it will improve the business climate and help the state's private sector create 250,000 jobs.

He said the state needed the restrictions on bargaining to deal with funding shortfalls as it contended with a $3.6 billion deficit in the upcoming two-year budget.

Critics have questioned whether the bill would save money, saying instead it was a smoke screen to break the unions.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Stern; Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Paul Simao)

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