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Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds state’s union, voter ID laws

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a controversial 2011 law stripping public employee unions of their bargaining power did not violate the constitution, a major win for Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker (R), who signed the bill into law.

Union organizers who brought the suit said the law, known as Act 10, violated their rights of free assembly and equal protection. In a 5-to-2 decision [pdf], the court held that collective bargaining is not a fundamental right, and that lawmakers can place limits on union powers.

The law, which prohibits unions from taking automatic dues from public employee paychecks, sparked weeks of protest at the state capitol in Madison, where union organizers rallied to preserve their power. It later sparked an effort to recall Walker, who survived a second election in 2012.

The unions took the law to court almost immediately after it was signed. But they haven’t been successful: The state Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2011, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has twice rejected challenges brought in federal court.

The state Supreme Court also ruled in favor of a 2011 law requiring voters to show identification when they go to the polls. In a 4-to-3 decision, justices overturned a Dane County court’s ruling striking down the law on constitutional grounds.

That decision could still be overturned in federal court, however. A federal district court judge in Wisconsin struck down the voter identification law in April. This week, the U.S. Justice Department weighed in with a brief supporting voters challenging the identification laws in Wisconsin and Ohio, which are being appealed in the 7th Circuit.

Wisconsin was one of a handful of states that passed rules requiring voters to show identification after Republicans swept to power in the 2010 elections. Many of those cases have been challenged in state and federal courts, and the Justice Department has gone so far as to sue states like Texas and North Carolina over changes to voting laws that benefit Republicans.

In a statement, Walker praised the court’s decisions.

“Act 10 has saved Wisconsin taxpayers more than $3 billion. Today’s ruling is a victory for those hard-working taxpayers,” Walker said. “Voter ID is a common sense reform that protects the integrity of our elections. People need to have confidence in our electoral process and to know their vote has been properly counted.”

Both laws will play a role in Walker’s bid for a second term. Polls show Walker running neck and neck with Madison School Board member Mary Burke (D), who is critical of Act 10’s restrictions on collective bargaining. And while a federal court still has to rule on the voter identification law before it takes effect, Democrats worry if it does apply it will disproportionately impact low income and minority voters who are most likely to favor their candidates.