Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas declares WERC in contempt of court on collective bargaining law

On September 14, 2012, Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas struck down Scott Walker’s signature portions of 2011 Wisconsin Acts 10 and 32 (“The Acts“) declaring them unconstitutional for effectively ending collective bargaining rights for most public workers, based on the sound judgement that the law violates both the state and U.S. Constitution and should be null and void.

Reporting at the time laid out how Judge Colas’ decision was made:

In his decision, Colas noted that the law limited union workers to cost-of-living salary increases through bargaining while other employees were free to seek larger raises. Colas said the state lacked a reasonable basis for making that distinction.

Colas also noted that the law grouped workers into different classes, since local police and firefighters kept all their bargaining rights under the law but other workers did not. In making these distinctions, the law ultimately infringed on workers’ rights to associate with one another freely and to be treated the same way under the law, the judge found.

The home rule section of the constitution states that the state can only pass laws that uniformly affect cities and villages. Colas found that the law violated that part of the constitution by prohibiting the City of Milwaukee from paying the employees’ share of their pension contributions.

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Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) was looking forward to passing the anti-union law for obviously political intentions when he claimed: “If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a . . . much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.”  That didn’t exactly turn out so well.

Judge Colas ruled that the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) Chairman James Scott and Commissioner Rodney Pasch were in contempt of court for continuing to order recertification elections, stating “I think this conduct was nothing more than an attempt to elude the application of a judgment the commissioners knew full well applied” and issued an injunction barring it from enforcing the restrictions against any school district or municipal worker union.

The collective bargaining law had previously been upheld by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in January, 2013 after lawsuits were overturned:

The lawsuit was brought by the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the Wisconsin State Employees Union and other unions. WEAC President Mary Bell expressed disappointment with the decision.

“What is so abundantly clear is that Act 10 was never about addressing the fiscal needs of the state but instead a ploy to eliminate workers’ rights to have a voice through their union – political payback for citizens who didn’t endorse the governor,” Bell said in a statement. “This marks a setback, but the fact of the matter is that our members will not give up on their commitment to restoring their rights to negotiate for fair wages and safe working conditions.”

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The conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the Colas case on November 11, which was announced last June.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear the appeal of a lawsuit brought by two unions challenging the constitutionality of Gov. Scott Walker’s law effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers in the state.

The 4th District Court of Appeals had urged the high court in April to directly hear the appeal, noting ongoing uncertainty about the law’s status. The court agreed Friday, but didn’t release any details about its decision.

The lawsuit was brought by unions representing Madison school teachers and City of Milwaukee workers. A Dane County circuit judge ruled last year that the law was unconstitutional as it applied to school districts and local governments, but it was unclear if the ruling applied outside Madison and Milwaukee.

Lester Pines, one of the attorneys who brought the lawsuit, said he wasn’t surprised that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, saying: “It raises significant constitutional issues that should be resolved in that court”.

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Pines commented on Colas’ injunction declaring WERC in contempt of court while additionally calling the WERC “renegade commissioners” and puppets of Governor Walker, who appointed them before signing “the Acts”. He added “They are public officials who took an oath to uphold the Wisconsin Constitution and the U.S. Constitution and they are thumbing their nose at a court order.”

Lester Pines, an attorney who represents the Madison teachers as well as the Kenosha Education Association, one of the six unions that filed the contempt motion, told Colas during a hearing Monday. “If they do not respect the rulings of the court, the rule of law is meaningless.”

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More news will come from this decision which will occur in November.