League of Women Voters v. Knudson
Wisconsinites Win the Fight for Democracy
Court Reverses Wisconsin Legislature’s Post-Election Power Grab
MADISON—On March 21, a Wisconsin court enjoined state officials from enforcing the sweeping legislation that state lawmakers passed last December before the newly elected governor and attorney general took office. The legislation sought to shift power from the executive branch to the legislature and restricted early voting.
Today’s court ruling is a win for democracy. The Dane County Circuit Court ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in showing that the laws were invalid because they were passed during an unlawful “extraordinary session.” The Wisconsin constitution empowers the legislature to meet only in regular sessions established by statute, or in a “special session” called by the governor. No constitutional provision allows for the legislature to call an “extraordinary session” on its own initiative. And for good reason. As the court concluded, “the people’s liberty is imperiled by a Legislature that can meet at will any time, with little warning and even less of a published agenda.”
The successful lawsuit was brought by three advocacy organizations, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Disability Rights Wisconsin, and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, as well as Green County Clerk Michael Doyle (the only county clerk elected in Wisconsin as an independent), and three Wisconsin residents, union laborer Guillermo Aceves, longtime natural resources attorney and advocate Michael Cain, and former Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General John Greene. The plaintiffs are represented in the matter by Madison and Milwaukee-based law firm Stafford Rosenbaum, nonpartisan nonprofit Protect Democracy, and law firm Robbins Russell.
Last December, the now-invalidated legislation drew public rebuke from Republicans and Democrats alike who saw the legislation for what it was—an anti-democratic power grab. The legislation expanded the legislature’s power at the expense of newly elected Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul—both of whom defeated incumbents—and restricted early voting to two weeks. When a majority of Wisconsinites voted for a change of party in statewide offices last November, it was largely due to the result of record turnout in Dane and Milwaukee counties, Wisconsin’s two largest, both of which allowed roughly six weeks of early voting.
While multiple lawsuits have challenged various provisions of the legislation, this lawsuit is the only one that sought to invalidate the entire “extraordinary session” as unconstitutional. It was also the first to reach a hearing on the merits.
STATEMENT OF PROTECT DEMOCRACY COUNSEL DEANA EL-MALLAWANY
“We’re proud to stand with our clients and co-counsel in defense of democracy in Wisconsin. State legislators convened an unauthorized ‘lame duck’ session for the clear purpose of taking power away from the winner of an election. That behavior is anti-democratic, no matter which party does it. Today’s court ruling is a signal to government officials who may be tempted to expand their powers beyond constitutional limits at the expense of democracy—voters will challenge such abuses and they will win.”
STATEMENT OF PLAINTIFF LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS WISCONSIN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR ERIN GRUNZE
“Today’s court ruling is a victory for the people of Wisconsin, who are entitled to a government that represents their interests transparently and respects the limits of its constitutional authority. As an organization dedicated to voting rights and informed participation in government, we feel vindicated that the court saw the Legislature’s ‘extraordinary session’ for what it was—an unconstitutional act that harmed Wisconsin voters and taxpayers.”
STATEMENT OF JEFFREY A. MANDELL OF STAFFORD ROSENBAUM LLP
“The court’s ruling today faithfully upholds the Wisconsin Constitution and the rule of law. Legal scholars, former Wisconsin legislators and members of Congress, our clients, and now the judiciary all agree: The Legislature does not have the authority to convene itself in an ‘extraordinary session.’ Exercises of power in excess of that constitutional authority will not go unchecked.”
The judge’s ruling can be found here.
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Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to preventing American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government. Last November, Protect Democracy filed lawsuits against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Florida Governor Rick Scott seeking to prevent them from using their official positions to influence elections in which they were candidates.
Jeffrey A. Mandell is a partner at the law firm Stafford Rosenbaum LLP, which has offices in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mr. Mandell is a litigator with broad trial and appellate experience in federal and state courts, including the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawrence Robbins is a trial and appellate litigator who handles both criminal and complex civil litigation. Mr. Robbins has extensive experience in state and federal courts across the country, and has argued eighteen cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. He is a partner at the law firm Robbins Russell Englert Orseck Untereiner & Sauber LLP, which has an office in Washington, DC.