Published Online: November 22, 2013

Supreme Court vacates contempt order in union case

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday vacated a contempt order issued against a state commission for moving ahead with implementing key portions of Gov. Scott Walker's law effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers.

However, the Supreme Court declined to put on hold a 2012 lower court ruling that found the law's restrictions were unconstitutional as they applied to a Madison teachers union and a Milwaukee public workers union.

The unions claim the lower court ruling applies to all local unions statewide, but Walker's administration says it does not. That issue — which will determine whether major parts of Walker's signature law remain in effect — is still pending before the Supreme Court.

All the court said in its 5-2 decision was that Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas was wrong in finding the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission in contempt for preparing re-certification elections for hundreds of unions. The state's highest court said only it could do that.

Colas had ruled the restrictions were unconstitutional because they violated the two unions' rights to free speech, association and equal protection.

But the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, maintaining Colas' decision applied only to those unions, continued to prepare for re-certification elections scheduled for this month for more than 400 school district worker unions.

Colas revisited his decision last month, saying it applied to all local public unions, and held the commission in contempt.

State attorneys immediately asked the Supreme Court to put on hold both the original 2012 ruling and the contempt ruling while the Supreme Court considered the appeal to the underlying case.

Lester Pines, an attorney for the unions challenging the law, said Thursday that until the court rules on Colas' 2012 decision, the state is bound by it and should not proceed with scheduling the elections. If it does, Pines said, "we'll take steps."

The unions could ask the Supreme Court to find the commission in contempt, he said.

"They still have no authority to enforce a law that has been declared unconstitutional, whether there's a contempt order against them or not," Pines said. "So we will see what they do."

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, in a prepared statement, did not indicate what the commission's next step would be.

"I'm pleased by the court's action vacating the contempt order, and I look forward to the justices deciding the case on the merits," Van Hollen said.

The court said in an unsigned decision that it was vacating the contempt order "because it interferes with our appellate jurisdiction" given that the case was under appeal to the Supreme Court when Colas issued the contempt order.

"We are mindful of the pressures a circuit court can face from aggressive litigation in high-profile cases," the court said. "However, when the appeal of a circuit court's prior decision is pending before this court, the circuit court must take care to avoid actions that may interfere with the pending appeal."

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley dissented, saying the majority "fails to grapple" with unknown practical and legal implications and doesn't consider "the collateral damage it has wrought."

"The order creates a springboard for future uncertainty and litigation," the dissenting justices said.

Walker's union law, passed by the Republican Legislature despite protests that grew as large as 100,000 people, prohibits public worker unions from collectively bargaining for anything beyond base wage increases based on inflation. They also bar automatic withdrawals from members' paychecks and require annual elections to see if members want their unions to go on representing them.

The election requirement remains in effect in regard to state workers. The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission announced earlier Thursday that two unions representing prison guards and state teachers failed to muster enough member votes to continue negotiating over wages. Three other unions representing state attorneys, assistant district attorneys, and tradesmen, such as electricians, carpenters and bricklayers, made the cutoff. The unions have eight days to challenge the results.

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