Frustrated by the efforts of Dane County judges to delay the implementation of state legislation, a number of Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, and Rep. David Craig, R-Big Bend, have introduced a bill that would limit the authority of circuit judges.
Currently, an injunction placed on a bill by a circuit judge delays the implementation of that bill until the case is heard by a Court of Appeals. Implementation of the law might be held up until the Wisconsin Supreme Court issues a final ruling.
The main problem Republicans seem to have with the current system is the potential for locally elected judges to have an impact on statewide legislation. In the words of Nathan Schacht, a Craig staffer, “Questions have been raised as to whether a ruling from a judge from a small portion of the state should prevent the statewide implementation of legislation passed by the duly elected statewide Legislature and signed by a governor, who is also elected statewide.”
It’s no secret: Dane County judges have been a serious obstacle to the legislative efforts of Wisconsin Republicans. Since Gov. Scott Walker took office, we’ve witnessed a consistent trend. Republican lawmakers push through controversial legislation – for example, collective bargaining, redistricting and voter identification – only to see a Dane County judge place an injunction on the law over questions of constitutionality.
Of course, circuit judges can’t singlehandedly strike down a law passed at the Capitol. In all of these instances, the case moved on to the Court of Appeals – in particular, the Supreme Court eventually ruled the collective bargaining law was indeed constitutional. However, circuit judges do have the power to delay significantly the implementation of a new law. Dane County judges set back the collective bargaining legislation for a number of months – the injunction placed on voter ID laws ensured that they would not take effect before the November 2012 presidential elections.
This delay may seem obnoxious to Grothman and others, but it is a necessary part of the legislative process. If they can’t accept that the judiciary is one of the three branches of government, then maybe they should have chosen a different career path.
Does anyone else see the irony here? Dane County judges have repeatedly blocked state laws because of their dubious constitutionality. Now, in an effort to silence these judges, Grothman and others are attempting to limit the ability of the judicial branch to serve as a check and balance on state government. You know, the concept of “separation of powers” that lies at the core of American government. So, unconstitutionality leads to – well, more unconstitutionality.
The motives behind these lawmakers’ efforts to prevent judges from questioning the constitutionality of state laws are transparent – they see Dane County judges as politically motivated obstructionists. This very well could be true in some cases, but it is beside the point. To the extent it would handcuff Wisconsin’s judges, Grothman’s bill is a much greater danger to state government than the Dane County judges it seeks to silence.
Here’s a thought: If Republican lawmakers are really so upset that every bill they push through the Legislature gets held up in court then maybe they should propose legislation of less dubious constitutionality rather than voter ID laws reminiscent of Jim Crow laws in the mid-20th century South and shamelessly politicized redistricting bills. In the case of legislation regarding elections, perhaps a better strategy to reduce the impact of “activist” judges would be to not try to pass that legislation immediately before a hotly contested election.
Dane County judges might be a minor annoyance to Republican lawmakers, but if a law truly is constitutional, it will be upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court – and will eventually take effect. In many cases, patience is a virtue.
Charles Godfrey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in physics and math.