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Judge voids Wisconsin's collective-bargaining law

Nothing justified the short notice on a vote without a quorum, the state judge ruled.

MADISON, Wis. - The fight over stripping collective-bargaining rights from Wisconsin's public workers will move into the state Supreme Court, and possibly back into the Legislature, after a judge Thursday struck down the law that passed despite large protests that paralyzed the Capitol.

Republican backers of Gov. Scott Walker's proposal said they were confident the state Supreme Court would overturn the judge's ruling that lawmakers broke open-meetings statutes during the law's approval process. The judge had temporarily blocked the law shortly after it passed in March.

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in the case June 6. However, Republicans who control the Legislature could pass the measure a second time to avoid the open-meeting violations.

Still, Democrats and union leaders who helped organize protests against the measure that grew to as large as 85,000 people praised the victory, even if it could be fleeting. "It tells legislators, 'You can't be arrogant,' " said Marty Beil, executive director of the state's largest public-employee union. "You have to do it in the light of day."

Mary Bell, president of the state's largest teachers' union, said she hoped the judge's ruling would lead lawmakers to rethink the law.

The last time the Legislature took up the issue, tens of thousands of protesters, including many teachers, descended on Madison in a futile attempt to persuade lawmakers to reject the proposal. The protests lasted for weeks and made Wisconsin the center of a national debate on union rights.

Meanwhile, all 14 Democratic senators fled to Illinois to prevent a 20-member quorum to pass the bill. Senate Republicans eventually called a special committee meeting with roughly two hours' notice so that it could amend the bill to take out spending items, thereby avoiding the quorum rule.

Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi noted in her ruling Thursday that the open-meetings law typically calls for 24 hours' notice of meetings, or, in cases with just cause, two hours. Sumi said nothing justified such short notice and declared the law void.

"Our form of government depends on citizens' trust and confidence in the process by which our elected officials make laws, at all levels of government," she wrote.

Leading Republicans in the Legislature reacted by labeling Sumi an "activist" judge.

Walker had pushed for the law as a way to help balance the state budget, which was projected to be $3.6 billion short when he introduced it in February. The governor had no comment on the judge's ruling, a spokesman said.