May 26, 2011 / 3:13 PM / 7 years ago

Judge voids controversial Wisconsin union law

MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - A Wisconsin judge on Thursday voided a controversial Republican-backed law restricting the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions in the state.

Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi, who was appointed by a Republican governor, said Republican state lawmakers who passed the law in March had violated the state’s open meetings law in rushing the legislation through amid massive public protests at the state Capitol.

But the ruling will not end the bitter battle over the measure, which also sent 14 state Senators into hiding in neighboring Illinois to prevent a caucus and later sparked the largest wave of legislator recall votes in state history.

Sumi’s ruling shifts the battleground to the state Supreme Court, where the case is now scheduled to be heard on June 6.

Meanwhile, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature may simply approve the bill again. They have had that option for months as the court considered the case but declined to act because they insist the bill was passed legally.

The Wisconsin proposal, championed by newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker, eliminates most collective bargaining rights for public sector unions and requires them to pay more for pensions and health coverage.

Walker’s office declined to comment on the ruling on Thursday, saying “it didn’t involve us” because the ruling was concerning an action by the legislature. Walker’s Republican allies in the legislature, who were named defendants in the case, expressed hope the high court would reverse Sumi.

Mike Tate, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party which opposed the measure, hailed the ruling and said: “It should be looked at as an opportunity to work together to find common sense solutions to grow our economy and get our fiscal house in order, not to tear our state apart.”

The anti-union measure at the center of the controversy has been the hallmark of Walker’s first five months in office -- and was one of the first items on his agenda when he called the legislature into special session after his swearing in.

It propelled Wisconsin to the forefront of a wider national fight as Republicans who took control of many statehouses in last fall’s midterm elections moved aggressively to shrink government and made reining in public unions a top priority.

A flurry of measures targeting collective bargaining by public employees were introduced in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Michigan -- though none were enacted in quite the same fashion as in Wisconsin and some fell short of passage.

Walker defended the new rules for unions as a vital fiscal reform to help the state close a projected budget deficit.

Critics saw the bill, which also eliminates automatic deduction of union dues, as a veiled Republican attack on long-held rights to collective bargaining and on a main source of political funding for the Democratic Party.

As the state legislature debated the measure in late February and early March it triggered huge protests outside the state Capitol that on one occasion attracted nearly 100,000 demonstrators, with most opposed to the measure.

Fourteen Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to deny Republicans the quorum needed for a vote on the measure.

The lawsuit on which Sumi ruled essentially challenged the legislative maneuver Republican leaders used to pass the anti-union measure without the 14 Democrats in the chamber.

The dispute over the measure has sharply divided Wisconsin, a state fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

On April 5, in a state supreme court election seen as a proxy for voter sentiment on the anti-union measure, an incumbent judge seen as conservative defeated a challenger backed by liberals by about 7,000 votes out of almost 1.5 million votes cast - after a recount was demanded.

Following the legislative battle, recall petitions were filed against six Republicans and three Democrats. Special elections are expected to be held on July 12.

Reporting by Jeff Mayers, James B. Kelleher and David Bailey; Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Bohan

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