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Protesters target GOP lame-duck session

Opponents of extraordinary-session bills submitted by Republican legislators gather outside the State Capitol to protest last month. Protesters also packed a hearing and the halls outside the hearing room to say the bills are an affront to the results of the Nov. 6 election.

Three liberal-leaning advocacy groups filed a court challenge to laws passed by Wisconsin Republicans in a whirlwind session last month, including one that curtailed the power of incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Disability Rights Wisconsin and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities are plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Thursday in Dane County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit seeks to block implementation of laws passed in the lame-duck session contending the so-called “extraordinary session” held to pass them is unconstitutional.

This lawsuit — plus a complaint set to be filed by a Democratic lawmaker asking Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne to challenge votes held to pass the laws — bring to three the number of legal actions filed by opponents of the GOP measures.

Jeffrey Mandell, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said it contends the state Constitution provides only two methods for the Legislature to meet: at a time provided by law or in a special session convened by the governor.

GOP legislative leaders convened the extraordinary session last month under a process set forth in the Legislature’s internal rules. But the groups bringing the challenge contend those rules don’t have the force of law or the Constitution.

According to the Legislative Council, the Legislature’s nonpartisan legal agency, lawmakers have clear authority to hold extraordinary sessions under the Constitution and the schedule they pass at the start of each two-year session, according to a memo by its attorneys released by the office of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

During a Thursday news conference, Vos said he is confident the GOP’s lame-duck legislation is constitutional, and said the Assembly, using its new authority under the laws, will likely intervene in the case. While Kaul is responsible for defending the state in the suit, Vos said he doubted Kaul would adequately defend state law.

“It seems he’s more of an activist attorney general than one who is going to protect our interests,” Vos said.

Erin Grunze, director of the League of Women Voters, said her group is bringing the suit in part because it objects to the secretive process used to consider and pass the laws, which later were signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker.

“The process of having an extra session that was a few days, but very long hours, doesn’t give the public much time to understand what’s happening,” Grunze said. “There should be more careful consideration and public participation than what could be done in that extraordinary session.”

In addition to groups bringing the challenge, its plaintiffs include three individual Wisconsin residents. They are former state Assistant Attorney General John Greene and Michael Cain, a former longtime lawyer for the state Department of Natural Resources, both of Madison; and Guillermo Aceves, a heavy equipment operator from Clinton.

In addition to the new lawsuit, liberal group One Wisconsin Institute is asking a federal judge to strike down provisions passed in the session that curtail the timeline for early voting.

And Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, said he plans to formally ask Ozanne to argue that Assembly Republicans broke the state open meetings law by the manner in which they held the session.

Anderson, who is paralyzed from the chest down and uses a wheelchair, contends he was illegally excluded from voting on the lame-duck bills because Assembly Republican leaders did not tell him in advance when the votes would be held. Anderson said he needs advance notice as an accommodation because of health and logistical issues related to his disability. He says the uncertainty about the timing of the votes forced him to leave the state Capitol before they were held, keeping him from participating.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said Thursday that while Anderson sent him one text message the night before the vote, he did not fully explain what accommodations he needed in order to vote. Steineke said if Anderson had done so, Assembly leaders would have found a way to ensure he participated.

“If we were made aware of this particular situation, we could have helped,” Steineke said.

In a press conference Thursday to discuss his complaint, Anderson said the lame-duck session wasn’t the first time he relayed to Assembly GOP leaders the accommodations he needed. He said Assembly Democratic leaders shared those needs with GOP leaders in 2017 when a similar issue arose, when he had to miss a vote because the Assembly postponed a vote on a bill until the early morning hours.

Anderson said he has struggled in the past to discuss struggles related to his disability publicly and with other lawmakers because he doesn’t want to be seen as weak or complaining.

“I am done with shame,” Anderson said. “I’m done holding my tongue and pretending that everything is OK.”