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Wisconsin Lawsuit Seeks To Strike Down Laws Passed During Republican Power Grab

A coalition of advocacy groups and three Wisconsin voters filed a lawsuit on Thursday seeking to strike down laws state Republicans passed in a lame-duck session before the new Democratic governor and attorney general officially took office.

The laws were part of a last-minute legislative sprint that drew national attention and public outcry that Republican lawmakers were making a power grab before then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) left office. The laws being challenged include cuts to early voting and limits on the governor’s ability to withdraw from lawsuits and make certain appointments.

The suit, filed in Dane County Circuit Court, argues that the laws are invalid because lawmakers passed them in what’s called an “extraordinary session.” The session was established through a joint legislative rule, but the lawsuit argues it was unconstitutional.

The Wisconsin Constitution states that the legislature shall meet “at such time as shall be provided by law, unless convened by the governor in special session.” The lawsuit says that the “extraordinary session” late last year was unconstitutional because lawmakers didn’t pass a law authorizing it and it wasn’t called by the governor.

“The Legislature lacked legal authority to convene the December 2018 Extraordinary Session,” the plaintiffs wrote in their complaint. “Neither the Wisconsin Constitution nor any statute authorizes the Legislature, let alone a small subset of each chamber acting at the direction of its respective Organizing Committee, to convene itself in an ‘extraordinary session.’” 

The legislative rule authorizing extraordinary sessions was adopted in 1977, according to a 2014 report from the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau. The first extraordinary session was called in 1980, and there were 23 of them held from then until 2014, according to the report. Lawmakers from both parties have held such sessions, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

Wisconsin Speaker Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, expressed confidence Thursday that the actions of the legislature were constitutional, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he was skeptical courts would get involved in the legislature’s procedures.

“Here, where the legislature has had a joint rule that has supported the call of extraordinary sessions for a number of years, it seems unlikely that the courts would interfere with the legislative process by saying a long standing joint rule is not tantamount to something being provided by law,” he said.

The suit was filed by The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Disability Rights Wisconsin and Black Leaders Organizing For Communities, along with three Wisconsin residents.

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