Brief

Judge rules against 2018 lame duck law giving Legislature power over attorney general settlements

By: - May 12, 2022 5:40 am
Headshot of attorney general josh kaul at the state of the state speech

Attorney General Josh Kaul at Governor Tony Evers’ first State of the State address in Madison, Wisconsin, at the State Capitol building on Jan. 22, 2019. Photo by Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

A Dane County judge sided with Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul in a lawsuit with the state Legislature, ruling Republican legislators violated the Wisconsin Constitution when they gave themselves veto power over state Department of Justice (DOJ) actions. 

Judge Susan Crawford’s May 5 ruling strikes a blow to one of the laws Republicans passed during the 2018 lame duck session of the Legislature, when lawmakers took power from the offices of the governor and attorney general right before they were set to be taken over by Democrats. A previous legal effort to more broadly dismantle the lame duck laws was unsuccessful after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Legislature last year. 

The lawsuit challenged one of the measures, which required the DOJ to get approval from the Legislature’s powerful, and Republican-controlled, Joint Committee on Finance for any settlements in civil actions prosecuted by the attorney general’s office. 

At the time, legislators said this would give them a “seat at the table,” but Crawford disagreed that was necessary. 

“It is more accurate to characterize [the law] as granting absolute power to the Legislature, far greater than a ‘seat at the table’ alongside the prosecutor,” she wrote, adding that the law “effectively operates as a veto, with no override mechanism to act as a check on legislative authority.”

Crawford wrote that for 170 years, Wisconsin operated effectively with these responsibilities being the sole authority of the attorney general. 

The decision does not immediately take effect because Crawford issued a temporary stay so her ruling could be appealed. 

Kaul celebrated Crawford’s decision in a written statement. 

“The lame-duck power grab by Republicans in the state legislature undermined the will of Wisconsin voters and has resulted in wasted tax dollars,” Kaul said. “We will continue working to ensure that the aspects of the lame-duck legislation that violate the Wisconsin Constitution are struck down.”Republicans promised to appeal, saying the decision only came down this way because it came from Dane County, where judges are typically more liberal. 

“This ruling comes as no surprise from a Dane county judge,” Angela Joyce, a spokesperson for Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said in a statement to Wisconsin Public Radio. “When there’s a conservative accomplishment, they try to say it’s unconstitutional. We will be appealing.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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