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Wisconsin's Highest Court Next Stop for Bargaining Law

Wisconsin's controversial collective bargaining law had its day in the state legislature, and its day in the streets. Now it's being heard in the courts.

The state's Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments June 6 on the law, which was approved by Wisconsin's Republican-controlled legislature in March after a prolonged fight—and raucous if respectable street protests—and signed by Gov. Scott Walker shortly thereafter.

The hearing will come less than two weeks after Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi voided the law, saying the GOP lawmakers violated the state's open meetings statutes through manuevers used to push it through the legislature before Democrats could block it.

"This case is the exemplar of values protected by the Open Meetings Law: transparency in government, the right of citizens to participate in their government, and respect for the the rule of law," Sumi wrote in her decision, issued last week.

"It is not the court's business to determine whether [the collective bargaining law] is good public policy or bad policy; that is the business of the legislature. It is this court's responsibilty, however, to apply the rule of law to the facts before it."

(The state's Department of Justice, in turn, has asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take over the case and vacate Sumi's decision.)

In February, Walker thrust his Midwestern state into a maelstrom by introducing a measure that dramatically reduced the collective bargaining powers of most public employees, including teachers, and mandated that they pay more for benefits. Walker argued that the bill would save local governments around his state money, by freeing them from having to accept costly terms under contracts negotiated with teachers unions.

The case quickly emerged as a proxy fight among those, particularly conservatives, who saw it as an historic opportunity to curb what they saw as excessive union powers, versus others who saw it as an attack on workers' rights and an effort by Walker and other Republicans to undermine unions' political might. School districts, as we've reported, face nervous prospects, as they attempt to gauge the financial and emotional impact on their communities of a law that now hangs in the balance.

The case heads to Wisconsin's highest court, which has just been the subject of what was surely one of the most closely watched state-level elections in the nation's history. The race pitted an incumbent justice, David Prosser, against challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg, who he eventually defeated after a close race that drew unusually high turnout—and the interest of partisans across the country.

Kloppenburg was supported by liberals, who saw the election as a chance to vent their dissatisfaction with the governor's collective bargaining law—and potentially block the law from taking effect.

Conservatives, meanwhile, raillied around Prosser. On Tuesday, Kloppenburg conceded the race, following a statewide recount, and Prosser will begin a new, 10-year term on the court in August. So while his political fate has been decided, that of the collective bargaining law will have to wait a while.

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