The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday approved a blatant power grab by the Republican-controlled state Senate, using a case focused on technical bureaucratic issues to approve a plan to take control of state boards and commissions. State in refusing to confirm the nominations of Democratic Governor Tony Evers.
In a 4-3 decision, the court’s conservative justices ruled Wisconsin Natural Resources Board GOP member Fred Prehn could stay on despite his term ending more than a year ago. simply because the State Senate has yet to confirm Evers’ designated replacement.
Prehn declined to leave the position when his term is scheduled to end in May 2021, arguing that it is technically not vacant until his replacement is confirmed. The Republican-controlled Legislature, meanwhile, fails to confirm many Evers nominations, creating an inevitable Catch-22 that effectively strips the Democratic governor of his nominating power.
The majority of the state Supreme Court upheld the scheme on Wednesday, upholding a lower court ruling that Prehn’s term expiration by itself “does not create a vacancy” under state law. state, and that Evers and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul cannot seek his removal.
The decision will have substantial impacts on environmental policy in Wisconsin, allowing a council that creates and shapes the implementation of such rules to retain control of its current Republican majority.
More broadly, it will give further impetus to Wisconsin Republicans’ efforts to use their state legislative majorities to wield unprecedented levels of power over the state, as they seek to erode Evers authorities over nearly every the foreheads. Indeed, Republicans can secure GOP control over state boards and commissions in perpetuity by refusing to leave appointed positions when their terms expire, as long as the state Senate also refuses to confirm their replacements.
It’s the latest example of how state Legislative Republicans, who consolidated and expanded their majorities with aggressive rounds of gerrymandering in the previous two rounds of redistricting, have taken near-total control of Wisconsin, despite the election of a Democratic governor in 2018 and the narrow partisan split in the state as a whole.
“Today I remind the Supreme Court of Wisconsin and the Republican Party in this state that we still live in a democracy, one very fundamental function of which is the peaceful and respectful transfer of power, even – and especially – when you lose ,” Evers says in a statement after the judgment. “Today’s decision continues to underscore the erosion of democratic institutions at the hands of Republicans in this state. It’s misguided, it’s short-sighted and it’s the most dangerous policy. »
In Wednesday’s decision, the conservative justices relied on a literal reading of state law and previous decisions of the state Supreme Court. The court’s liberal justices criticized the ruling, calling it “absurd” and arguing that it would allow political appointees who are allied with state Senate leaders to effectively determine their term limits.
“The absurd majority turnout allows Prehn’s six-year term on the Natural Resources Council – which expired more than a year ago – to last as long as Prehn wants, as long as he refuses to leave and that the Senate does not confirm a successor appointed by the governor”, judge Rebecca Dallet wrote in Minority Dissent. “Allowing Prehn to continue serving indefinitely makes him the final authority on whether he remains in office – not the legislature, which specified by law that his term expired more than 13 months ago, and not the governor, to whom the legislature gave the power to appoint a replacement.
“An unelected official should not be able to dictate his term at the will of the elected representatives of the people,” Dallet wrote, adding that the decision “directly leads our state government into disorder and chaos” by “threatening the fragile separation of powers”. at the heart of its functions. »
Evers named Prehn’s apparent successor to the Natural Resources Council in April 2021, just weeks before the end of Prehn’s six-year term. Sandra Naas, Evers’ pick to replace Prehn, has attended board meetings for more than a year but does not have voting power on the board. Prehn has denied that his desire to stay on the board is rooted in partisan interests, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in April, although his replacement by Naas would swing the majority composition of the board of appointees. by the GOP to the Democratic choices.
Kaul, the Democratic attorney general, filed a lawsuit seeking to force Prehn out of the seat last August.
The ongoing dispute between Evers and the legislature has been facilitated by Wisconsin’s “unusually fluid checks and balances system,” said Howard Schweber, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Combined with a stark partisan divide between the branches—itself the result of a highly successful Republican gerrymander—the result is an almost constant state of conflict between Evers and the Legislature on various executive branch issues as the Legislature attempts prevent Evers from continuing his program,” he said.
The state Supreme Court has been a helpful ally to the Wisconsin GOP throughout this fight.
Last year, he settled a dispute between Evers and the legislature by approving a heavily gerrymandered cropping plane which again tipped the balance of the state legislative cards in favor of the Republicans, who already benefited totally disproportionate benefits: In the 2012 state legislature elections, for example, Republican candidates garnered 46% of the vote statewide, but won 60% of the seats in both the House of Representatives and the state Senate. In 2018, when Evers narrowly defeated former Gov. Scott Walker, the GOP won just 45% of the votes cast in the state Assembly election but won 65% of its seats.
The new maps should further skew the legislature in favor of the GOP, which consistently attempted to use his existing majorities to limit Evers’ authority.
Immediately after its 2018 victory, the legislature used a special session to pass new laws curtailing its powers in numerous ways, a plot that GOP State House Speaker Robin Vos recognized was intended to ensure that Evers could not “adopt policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in”.
A judge blocked that attempt, but Vos and the GOP then stripped Evers of most of his emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the legislator took the first step towards approval of a constitutional amendment it would limit Evers’ powers over funds the state receives from the federal government, an effort that resulted from a dispute over federal pandemic-related aid.
The state Supreme Court has also backed those efforts, repeatedly ruling that Evers’ executive orders issued during the pandemic abused its emergency powers. He sided with the legislature in one such decision, after GOP lawmakers sued to block an executive order that sought to postpone the state’s April 2020 primary election due of the pandemic.
This decision, Edward Fallone, professor of law at Marquette University written at the timehad “nothing to do with the rule of law”, the correct reading of which, according to him, would have led to “the opposite result”.
Prehn said in a statement that he would continue to serve on the board “until my successor is duly confirmed by the Senate,” Wisconsin Public Radio reported.
Republicans appear to have no intention of replacing him anytime soon: They ended this year’s legislative session in March without holding a confirmation vote on Evers’s nomination to replace him.