MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Conservative and liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court justices alike questioned Republican legislators’ attorney on Monday about how much power the lawmakers could legally strip from Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul during oral arguments in a case challenging the GOP’s contentious lame-duck laws.
Republican legislators in December passed statutes that prohibit Democratic Gov. Tony Evers from ordering Kaul to withdraw from lawsuits, give legislators the right to intervene in lawsuits using their own attorneys rather than Kaul’s state Department of Justice lawyers, and force Kaul to get the approval of the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee before he can settle lawsuits.
A coalition of labor unions filed a lawsuit in February alleging the statutes violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. The case is now before the state Supreme Court.
Much of Monday’s oral arguments centered on the Legislature’s role in settlements. Kaul maintains that settlement discussions are confidential and that he wants the budget committee to sign non-disclosure agreements before he’ll bring the panel up to speed on what the Justice Department is working on. The committee has refused to sign anything to Kaul’s satisfaction. Kaul insists that the standoff has left tens of millions of dollars in potential settlement revenue in jeopardy.
Misha Tseytlin, the Republican lawmakers’ attorney, insisted that the lame-duck laws serve as a check on Kaul in case he tries to “settle away” the state’s interests. He said the Legislature appropriates money spent on settlements so lawmakers should have a say in the decisions.
Conservative Justice Annette Ziegler pushed back, asking why the Legislature should play any role in settlements since the attorney general is representing the state. Liberal-leaning Justice Rebecca Dallet said she believes the lame-duck laws allow the Legislature to stop settlement negotiations completely, which amounts to more than just a seat at the table during discussions.
“You can grind to a complete halt any kind of litigation the attorney general is conducting, period,” Dallet said. “So the buck would stop with the Legislature. … Where did you get that power?”
Tseytlin responded that Kaul could continue to litigate a case even if the Legislature refused to sign off on a settlement.
He also argued that the attorney general isn’t a part of the executive branch. Instead, the position is an administrative one and shares the authority to represent the state with the Legislature.
Liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley challenged Tseytlin to show her any statutory language that backs up that position; Tseytlin couldn’t point to any but said everyone recognizes that the people have the right to be heard.