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Wisconsin judge blocks Republicans’ lame-duck power grab

A Wisconsin judge blocked legislation passed by Republicans during a December lame-duck session to curb the new Gov. Tony Evers's (D) power. (Video: Reuters)

A Wisconsin judge on Thursday blocked several lightning-fast actions in December by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to limit the power of its incoming governor, Democrat Tony Evers, and preserve policies implemented by his predecessor, Scott Walker.

The GOP has tried similar power-stripping efforts after losing statewide elections in North Carolina and Michigan. Out­going Michigan governor Rick Snyder vetoed some but not all of the bills passed in December. And in 2016, North Carolina’s outgoing Republican governor, Pat Mc­Crory, defeated by Democrat Roy Cooper, signed a number of lame-duck measures, some of which have been successfully challenged in court.

In Wisconsin, the legislature acted in what is known as an “extraordinary session,” called with little notice. It lasted two days and one night and sparked heated protests.

The measures sought to protect, among other things, Republican agenda items such as work requirements for Medicaid and food-stamp recipients, opposition to the Affordable Care Act and limits on early absentee voting in elections. A federal judge blocked the voting measure earlier.

The three bills enacted during the sessions were extraordinary in breadth. One of them gave the legislature powers usually and exclusively reserved for the attorney general, such as approving legal actions by the state and signing off on lawsuit settlements. Another was aimed at reducing the need for highway construction projects to comply with federal laws governing prevailing wages and minority set-asides. Severe restrictions were imposed limiting the availability of Medicaid.

Republicans pushed through 82 of Walker’s appointments to various state boards and commissions.

Outgoing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed legislation to weaken the incoming Democratic governor's power, and dismissed opposition as "hype and hysteria." (Video: Reuters)

At the time of the session, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos stated its purpose plainly: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in,” he said.

Dane County Judge Richard G. Niess invalidated the actions, including the appointments. He ruled that the extraordinary session violated the state’s constitution, which allows special sessions only when convened by the governor. Although Walker signed the bills, he did not call the session.

The lawsuit, one of several, was brought by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Disability Rights of Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and other groups.

In a statement posted Thursday to Twitter, Evers said: “The Legislature overplayed its hand by using an unlawful process to accumulate more power for itself and override the will of the people, despite the outcome of last November’s election.”

Vos and state Senate Republican leader Scott Fitzgerald promised in a statement emailed to The Washington Post that they would appeal the ruling. They claim the decision threatens all laws ever enacted in extraordinary sessions, including “stronger laws against child sexual predators and drunk drivers.”

Nothing in the decision or the lawsuit purports to go beyond the events of December, Jeffrey Mandell, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, told The Post.

Republicans lost all statewide contests in the midterm elections but retained majorities in both houses of Wisconsin’s legislature.

One of the GOP laws enacted in Wisconsin prevented the state from dropping out of a Texas-sponsored lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. Immediately after Niess’s ruling, Attorney General Josh Kaul moved to withdraw the state’s involvement in the suit.

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.