June 17, 2013 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently added two high-profile cases to its docket, one involving the controversial budget repair bill, the other a challenge to the state’s law recognizing domestic partnerships between same-sex couples who live together.
In Madison Teachers Inc. v. Scott Walker, the state supreme court may decide whether certain provisions of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 – the law curtailing collective bargaining rights for public workers – violate the equal protection and association rights of municipal employees.
According to a press release from court staff, “a decision by the Supreme Court is expected to clarify the effect of Act 10 and provide guidance to public employers and employees on how to approach collective bargaining,” as well as help settle other pending lawsuits.
The plaintiffs, a Madison teachers union and a union representing City of Milwaukee employees, argue that the legislation creates classes of employees that are treated differently. They say the law treats employees who choose to unionize differently than those who don’t join unions.
The state, on behalf of Gov. Scott Walker and other defendants, argue that public employees don’t have a constitutional right to collectively bargain so no burdens are imposed.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas declared that certain provisions of Act 10, also known as the budget repair bill, were unconstitutional as related to municipal employee-employer relations, which are governed by the Municipal Employment Relations Act (MERS).
As a result of Act 10 and 2011 Wisconsin Act 32, MERS prohibits municipal unions from bargaining on subjects other than total base wages, and requires a referendum to increase wages above cost-of-living adjustments.
The law also prohibits local unions from deducting dues through payroll deductions, and requires unions to recertify annually. Already, a federal appeals court has ruled that prohibiting payroll deductions for union dues and requiring annual recertification is lawful, in addition to its decision that Act 10 is constitutional “in its entirety.”
However, Judge Colas ruled that these provisions impose unconstitutional burdens on municipal employees who belong to unions. The defendants moved to block that decision pending appeal, by the motion was denied. Now the case is in the hands of the state supreme court.
In its certification, the state appeals court wrote that a decision would have a “sweeping statewide effect on public employers, public employees, and taxpayers.”
Challenge to State’s Domestic Partnership Law
In Appling v. Doyle, the supreme court may decide whether the state’s domestic partnership law violates Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.
In 2006, Wisconsin voters amended the state constitution to clarify that “only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state.”
In 2009, under Gov. Jim Doyle, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a domestic partnership law which grants certain rights to same-sex couples who live together.
Members of Wisconsin Family Action, including its president, immediately filed a lawsuit alleging that a domestic partnership status is a legal status substantially similar to that of marriage and thus violates the state’s constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.
The state attorney general has declined to defend the domestic partnership law. Thus, the law is being defended by former Gov. Jim Doyle and other defendants, who argue that the legal status of domestic partnerships is not substantially similar to that of marriage because the rights, obligations, and termination requirements are different than marriage.
The circuit and appeals courts upheld the law. A three-judge panel of the District IV Wisconsin Court of Appeals noted that same-sex partners do not have the same rights as married couples.
Court Accepts Two Other Cases
The Wisconsin Supreme Court also accepted review in two other cases, Phillips v. Parmelee and Steve P. v. Maegan F, and denied review of 10 other cases.
In Phillips, the supreme court will examine “whether the language of an asbestos exclusion in a business owner’s commercial liability policy should be read to deny coverage essentially whenever the claim against the insured is based on the presence of asbestos.”
Steven P. involves a dispute over the custody of a girl who was raised for several months by prospective adoptive parents, including Steven P., before the biological parents decided they wanted to retain parental rights. Lower courts sided with the biological parents.
Case summaries derived from full summaries posted on www.wicourts.gov.