The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear Gov. Tony Evers' lawsuit arguing the Republican-controlled Legislature’s block of conservation projects violates the Wisconsin Constitution.
The decision was made along ideological lines, with only the four liberal judges agreeing to hear the case.
The lawsuit, filed in late October, contended Wisconsin Republicans’ block of UW System pay raises, conservation projects funding and professional licensing programs in legislative committees violates the Wisconsin Constitution and intrudes into executive powers.
Legislative leaders ultimately approved the pay raises.
The court only agreed to hear the complaint regarding state conservation projects Friday and kept the other issues on hold.
The crux at the heart of the lawsuit is Republican lawmakers' use of what Evers called “legislative vetoes,” wherein lawmakers bypass votes in the Legislature by having specific, isolated members of the Legislature in committees affect state law.
The lawsuit singled out the Joint Committee on Finance’s power to veto conservation projects under the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, arguing it constitutes a “highly acute issue.” The program, which protects land from development, has long been a target of Republicans.
Lawmakers on the JFC have increasingly employed anonymous objections and pocket vetoes to stymie proposals from Evers, a Democrat, with land conservations in the Northwoods especially targeted. According to the lawsuit, the JFC has blocked almost one-third of all proposed Knowles-Nelson conservation projects since 2019.
In addition to Evers, the petitioners include the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, who filed the suit, said in a statement that legislative vetoes on DNR funding allocations were inconsistent with the “foundational” separation of powers in government.
“We look forward to working to vindicate that principle before the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” Kaul said.
This lawsuit is among several high-profile cases filed by Democrats since the court flipped to liberal control in August.
In her dissent, conservative Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley accused the majority of politicizing the court.
“By accepting only one of the issues raised by the Governor and holding the other two issues in abeyance, the majority refashions this court as the Governor’s avenue for imposing policy changes without the consent of the governed,” she wrote. “When the majority’s political allies say jump, the new majority responds: ‘How high?’”
Legislative Republicans echoed these criticisms, asserting the lawsuit amounted to an executive power grab.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said Evers was “working to diminish the voice of Wisconsinites by limiting the authority of the legislature and unduly strengthening his own administration.”
The lawsuit referenced that the U.S. Supreme Court and state high courts nationwide have “overwhelmingly rejected” similar legislative veto schemes.
“It is time to return Wisconsin to the mainstream,” the lawsuit declares. “Petitioners ask that this Court accept this matter as an original action and restore the constitutional balance of power to Wisconsin’s state government.”
The court set oral arguments for April 17th.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 3:18 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 3 to include a statement from Attorney General Josh Kaul.
Gavin Escott is a senior staff writer and photographer for multiple desks at The Daily Cardinal. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for city, state, campus and breaking news. He is the current host/producer of the Cardinal Call podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @gav_escott.