Judge tosses Wisconsin union reform: Why judges are dismantling the GOP agenda

A judge has ruled against Wisconsin’s controversial collective bargaining law. Across the country, state and federal judges are weighing whether the 2010 Republican surge led to legislative overreach.

By , Staff writer

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    Teachers rally at the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison Friday. A state judge has ruled that the state's controversial collective bargaining law violates workers’ equal rights under the Constitution.
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A year after Wisconsin exploded in protest over Republican legislation to gut collective bargaining for public employees, a Wisconsin judge has nullified the law, ruling on Friday that it violates workers’ equal rights under the Constitution.

Those dramatic union reforms and the political theater it sparked last year turned Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker into a Republican hero and helped balance the state’s budget.

The new rules, which curtailed bargaining rights for most unionized public employees, also sparked protests and sit-ins at the Wisconsin capitol and resulted in a recall effort that Governor Walker survived earlier this year, all of which seemed to cement majority political agreement with the Republican political agenda.

Recommended: What Wisconsin says about labor unions' clout in America

RECOMMENDED: A primer on labor unions' clout in America

With its focus on a signature Republican law, Friday’s ruling also highlights a series of state and federal rulings over the past year that have turned back major tenets of a Republican agenda fueled by the massive electoral victories the party brought home in November 2010, when it took over the House of Representatives and won nine governorships. Subsequently, a large number of state voter ID laws, immigration laws, and redistricting laws passed by Republicans since 2010 have faltered or failed in the courts.

There are notable exceptions. A Pennsylvania judge, for example, upheld that state’s tough Republican-backed voter ID law, and federal judges have largely allowed a central tenet – the so-called “papers please” provisions – passed by states in the wake of Arizona’s SB1070 law, while striking down other parts of those laws.

But from Florida to Texas, the court rejections of conservative laws show that the Republican revolution of 2010 has underscored political “overreach” by Republican majorities that courts have little choice but to dismantle, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones told the San Antonio Express-News this week.

That “hubris or ignorance” by Republican majorities, he adds, has already had more serious backlash for the party’s legislative agenda.

In Texas, for example, a ruling by a panel of federal judges this month that a redistricting map had “discriminatory intent” against the booming Hispanic population’s voting power reconfirmed for many that Texas is not ready to be released from federal supervision under Voting Rights Act.

Republicans acknowledge that they are pushing the envelope, but disagree that what they see as a mandate from voters constitutes overreach.

“We are testing the waters,” state Rep. Marva Beck, a freshman legislator in Texas, told The New York Times last year. “We passed legislation saying, ‘We have the right to do this,’ and federal judges are saying, ‘Whoa, wait a minute while we look at this.’ ”

Across the country, judges have rejected prison-privatization programs, drug testing for welfare recipients, new abortion rules, and a so-called “docs vs. Glocks” law that barred doctors from asking patients about firearm ownership. Meanwhile, the biggest court victory in recent years goes to Democrats, whose party-line vote for federal health-care reform in 2009 passed muster with the US Supreme Court this summer.

In Florida, Senate President Mike Haridopolos told the News Service of Florida that liberals are trying to thwart the will of the electorate by using the courts.

"What have liberals historically done?" he asked. "When they can't win elections, they go to the courts."

Concerns about a politicized judiciary have gained traction in some quarters. Republicans cried foul, for example, over what they said was a political opinion attached by federal Judge Sam Sparks to his ruling against a new law in Texas requiring doctors to show sonogram results to women seeking an abortion.

“It is ironic that many of the same people who zealously defend the state’s righteous duty to become intimately involved in a woman’s decision to get an abortion are also positively scandalized at the government’s gross overreaching in the area of health care,” Judge Sparks wrote.

It’s not clear what effect Friday’s ruling will have on the Wisconsin law. The Dane County ruling by state Judge Juan Colas came in response to one of several lawsuits filed against the law. But last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the merits of the law as it looked at an appeal from a different lawsuit.

The law forced workers to pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits, while stripping away their ability to bargain collectively with local governments over those benefits. It was intended to save money for state and local governments at a time when the state faced a $3 billion budget shortfall.

Walker, in turn, closed the budget shortfall within a year without raising taxes.

Friday’s ruling hinged on the fact that the law created separate rules for police and firefighters. That served, Judge Colas said, to "single out and encumber the rights of those employees who choose union membership and representation solely because of that association and therefore infringe upon the rights of free speech and association guaranteed by both the Wisconsin and United States Constitutions."

Walker issued a statement accusing the judge of being a "liberal activist" who "wants to go backwards and take away the lawmaking responsibilities of the legislature and the governor.”

RECOMMENDED: A primer on labor unions' clout in America

Recommended: What Wisconsin says about labor unions' clout in America
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