Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds GOP laws that strip power from elected Democrats

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The Republican-authored laws curtailed powers of the governor and attorney general, both Democrats.

The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Republican-authored lame-duck laws that stripped power from the incoming Democratic attorney general just before he took office in 2019.

The court rejected arguments that the laws were unconstitutional, handing another win to Republicans who have scored multiple high-profile victories before the conservative court in recent years.

The ruling marks the second time that the court has upheld the lame-duck laws passed in December 2018, just weeks before Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, both Democrats, took office.

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The actions in Wisconsin mirrored Republican moves after losing control of the governor's offices in Michigan in November 2018 and in North Carolina in 2016. Democrats decried the tactics as brazen attempts to hold onto power after losing elections.

The Wisconsin laws curtailed powers of both the governor and attorney general, but the case ruled on Thursday dealt primarily with powers taken away from Kaul. The Supreme Court previously rejected a lawsuit that challenged the legality of the lame-duck session itself.

Thursday's ruling involved a case filed by a coalition of labor unions led by the State Employees International Union. The coalition argued that the laws give the Legislature power over the attorney general's office, a violation of the separation of powers doctrine in the state constitution. The doctrine grants each branch of government core powers: the Legislature writes laws, the executive branch enforces them and the judicial branch interprets them.

The laws at issue prohibit Evers from ordering Kaul to withdraw from lawsuits; let legislators intervene in lawsuits using their own attorneys rather than Kaul's state Department of Justice lawyers; and force Kaul to get permission from the Legislature's Republican-controlled budget committee before setting lawsuits.

That last provision has proven the most divisive. Kaul has said settlement discussions are confidential and has refused to share details of cases with the committee, putting tens of millions of dollars in potential settlement revenue in jeopardy. In recent months the committee has signed off on a handful of settlements after the litigants allowed Kaul to share details of the deals, however.

The court ruled 5-2 that the attorney general derives his powers from state statutes, not the constitution, and his role is not a core function of the executive branch. The Legislature clearly has an interest in joining lawsuits independently and signing off on settlements because it's responsible for spending the state's money, Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote for the majority.

"While representing the State in litigation is predominately an executive function, it is within those borderlands of shared powers, most notably in cases that implicate an institutional interest of the legislature," Hagedorn wrote.

The court's two liberal justices, Rebecca Dallet and Ann Walsh Bradley, dissented.

The court did deliver a partial win for Evers, throwing out some of the rules the Legislature put in place that required his administration to rewrite thousands of government "guidance documents" and websites. The law also gave the Legislature more power to block rules written by the Evers administration.

The court found the rules written by the Legislature were overly broad and unconstitutional. Evers had argued that the new requirements to rewrite documents were so extensive it would make it impossible for the executive branch to get information to the public.

Democrats and liberal groups have been trying to push back against the laws since they were passed but have had little success.

Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now persuaded a federal judge in January 2019 to block language in the law that restricted in-person early voting to the two weeks before an election.

The League of Women Voters and other groups filed a state lawsuit arguing the laws as a whole were invalid because Republican lawmakers passed them after the Legislature's regular session had ended months earlier. The justices ruled last year that lawmakers can meet whenever they wish.