MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - A sharply divided Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that a controversial measure that curbs the collective bargaining rights of public workers in the state can go into effect.
In what was essentially a 4-3 decision, the high court overturned a lower court, which had ruled Republican lawmakers violated the state’s open meetings law when they passed the measure in March.
“Access was not denied,” the Supreme Court declared in Tuesday’s decision. “There is no constitutional requirement that the legislature provide access to as many members of the public as wish to attend meetings of the legislature or meetings of legislative committees.”
But Tuesday’ 68-page decision was a thicket of concurrences and dissents, reflecting the sharp divide the measure has created in the state itself.
David Prosser, whose recent reelection to the state’s high court had been hotly contested by opponents of the union measure, wrote in his eight-page concurrence that GOP legislators had good reason to rush things they way they did, given the ugly mood of protesters at the Capitol.
“The circuit court concluded that the legislature should have provided public notice of the special session conference committee 24 hours in advance,” Prosser wrote.
“The court did not acknowledge that thousands of demonstrators stormed and occupied the state Capitol within a few hours of the notice that a conference committee meeting would be held.”
But Justices Shirley Abrahamson, Ann Walsh Bradley and N. Patrick Coons disagreed, saying their colleagues had rendered a “hasty judgment” in a case where “the answers are not clear and our precedent is conflicting.”
The three in dissent blasted the order to overrule the lower court, saying it was ”based on errors of fact and law.
“They inappropriately use this court’s original jurisdiction, make their own findings of fact, mischaracterize the parties’ arguments, misinterpret statutes, minimize (if not eliminate) Wisconsin’s constitutional guarantees, and misstate case law, appearing to silently overrule case law dating back to at least 1891,” the three said.
The law at the heart of the controversy, which eliminates most collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public workers and requires them to pay more for pensions and health coverage, prompted a national debate over unions.
It was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker in March despite the largest public protests in Madison since the Vietnam War.
In May, a circuit court judge hearing one of several challenges against the measure voided it, siding with opponents who argued Republican lawmakers had violated Wisconsin’s strict open meetings law.
But in its ruling on Tuesday, the Supreme Court said the circuit court judge had overstepped her authority and violated the separation of powers in the state constitution.
The court said “one of the courts that we are charged with overseeing has usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the legislature ... exceeded its jurisdiction, invaded the legislature’s constitutional powers ... and erred in the enjoining the publication and further implementation of the Act.”
Walker, who said the measure was needed to help the state fix its finances, welcomed Tuesday’s judgment, saying it “provides our state the opportunity to move forward together and focus on getting Wisconsin working again.”
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the Supreme Court had “vindicated” the administration’s arguments.
The fractious debate over the measure propelled Wisconsin to the forefront of a wider national political fight as Republicans who took control of many statehouses in the November 2010 midterm elections moved aggressively to shrink government and made reining in public unions a top priority.
Democrats said the anti-union push was a veiled attempt to weaken political support from some of their strongest constituencies. But Republicans described the compensation and bargaining rights enjoyed by public union workers as unaffordable in an era of soaring state budget deficits.
The upheaval the measure caused continues to roil state politics. Six of the Republican senators who supported the law, and three of the Democratic senators who opposed it, will face special recall elections in July in what may be the largest wave of such special elections in U.S. history.
Additional reporting by David Bailey and James B. Kelleher; Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Peter Bohan