Another View on the Merits of Judge Sumi’s Decision

It should come as no surprise that Professor Fallone and I disagree on Judge Sumi’s decision in Ozanne v. Fitzgerald. I particularly take issue with his suggestion that criticism of the decision is the product of “sloppy lawyering.” In my view, that characterization is unfair and inaccurate. Nor is the legal – as opposed to political – criticism of Judge Sumi based on something other than the merits of this particular case. I have commented extensively on this case in the national and local media and have refused  to question Judge Sumi’s character or competence. Of course she did her job. But there are multiple reasons for “fuss” about the merits of the decision. Let’s try one.

Criticism of the notion that a court may invalidate an act of the legislature (as opposed to acts of local units of government subordinate to the legislature) is not based on “sixty year old” precedents. The Zimmerman and Goodland cases go to whether a court can enjoin publication of an enacted bill. That’s a different issue.

The idea that a court may not invalidate an act of the legislature for failure to comply with a statutory (as opposed to constitutional) restriction on legislative procedure is based on a long and unbroken string of cases beginning with McDonald v. State, 80 Wis. 407, 411-12, 50 N.W. 185 (1891) and most recently restated in the very case that Judge Sumi now relies on, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel v. Department of Administration, 2009 WI 79. The rationale for the rule was stated in State ex rel. La Follette v. Stitt, 114 Wis.2d 358, 338 N.W.2d 684 (1983):

Courts are reluctant to inquire into whether the legislature has complied with legislatively prescribed formalities in enacting a statute.  This reluctance stems from separation of power and comity concepts, plus the need for finality and certainty regarding the status of a statute, Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 215, 82 S.Ct. 691, 709, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962).  Although since Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L.Ed. 60 (1803) courts have had the authority to review acts of the legislature for any conflict with the constitution, courts generally consider that the legislature’s adherence to the rules or statutes prescribing procedure is a matter entirely within legislative control and discretion, not subject to judicial review unless the legislative procedure is mandated by  the constitution.  73 Am.Jur.2d Statutes, sec. 49, p. 296.  If the legislature fails to follow self-adopted procedural rules in enacting legislation, and such rules are not mandated by the constitution, courts will not intervene to declare the legislation invalid.  The rationale is that the failure to follow such procedural rules amounts to an implied ad hoc repeal of such rules.

Id. at 364-365.

Thus, even if – as everyone agrees – the Open Meetings law applies to the legislature – failure to comply with it may not result in invalidation of a legislative action (as opposed to, say, sanctions against individual legislatures). Indeed, the very case relied on by Judge Sumi for the proposition that the Open Meetings Law applies to the legislature –State ex rel. Lynch v. Conta, 71 Wis.2d 662, 239 N.W.2d 313 (1976) – recognizes that very distinction. It could issue declaratory relief as to the actions of individual legislatures and impose forfeitures upon them because it was not interfering with “the functions or separate power of the legislative branch,” id. at 698, and expressly stated that “[t]he case is accepted, as not contrary to separation of powers, in that it concerns application of the forfeiture penalty to members of a body, not to the branch of government.”  Id. at 700.

Ed – and Judge Sumi – want to suggest that this line of cases was somehow broken by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As I explained on my personal blog, Judge Sumi flatly misstates what happened in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Ed agrees, but argues that what he calls a “regrettable error” has no impact on the validity of the analysis. I respectfully disagree. Here’s why.

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Judge Sumi Does Her Job

Judge Maryann Sumi issued the long anticipated opinion in Ozanne v. Fitzgerald yesterday, holding: 1) that the circuit courts have jurisdiction to hear cases alleging that a particular piece of legislation was not constitutionally enacted; 2) that the court’s jurisdiction includes challenges alleging noncompliance with Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law; and that 3) the failure of the March 9, 2011 Joint Committee of Conference Meeting to comply with the Open Meetings Law rendered the legislative action taken at that meeting — 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 — void.

Judge Sumi’s opinion is straight forward.  The logic of her reasoning is spelled out in the topic headings contained in the opinion’s table of contents.  I paraphrase:

It is within the scope of judicial responsibility to review legislative action for compliance with statutory and constitutional requirements.  The Open Meetings Law presumes that all governmental meetings will be open and subject to notice requirements.  Legislative proceedings are not exempted from the requirements of the Open Meetings Law.  Therefore the legislature must comply with the same Open Meeting rules that apply to other governmental entities.  The evidence at trial demonstrated that the March 9, 2011 meeting did not comply with the Open Meetings Law.  The Open Meetings Law authorizes the court to void actions undertaken in violation of the law’s terms, where the court finds that the public interest does not counsel in favor of sustaining the action.  There is no public interest in favor of sustaining the act taken here, especially since the provisions of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 can easily be re-enacted by the legislature if it so wishes (provided that any legislative re-enactment complies with the requirements of the Open Meetings Law).

Reading through this summary, one might wonder what all the fuss is about.

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Lawyers: Play Nice

As you may have already seen, the blawgs have been discussing this recent order by United States District Court Judge Eric Melgren. Judge Melgren issued the order granting a motion for a continuance of a trial scheduled for June 14, 2011, in Kansas, after the defendant, a Dallas attorney,  sought the continuance on the grounds that his first-born son was due to be born on July 3, 2011. The judge expresses his dismay at the plaintiff’s attorneys’ decision to oppose the motion:

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