Courts ‘stand in the way” of Christie, Walker agendas

The gavel has dropped on Chris and the two Scotts. They responded with their typical civility and graciousness.

“You don’t elect the Supreme Court; you don’t expect them to be making law,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “But today, they made law. Because today, they sent an appropriations bill for $500 million that was not passed by the legislature, that was not signed by the governor. Go to the Constitution and tell me, how the hell did they get away with that?”

“There’s still a much larger separation-of-powers issue,” said Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, “whether one Madison judge can stand in the way of the other two democratically elected branches of government. The Supreme Court is going to have the ultimate ruling.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was quiet.

Judges in New Jersey and Wisconsin told Christie and Walker that their respective administrations violated state law and must compensate for it.

As Christie, Walker and other new governors – mostly Republicans, but one Democrat – applied an aggressive, confrontational style of governance, I wondered if their initiatives might conflict with the law, to put it mildly. Looks like some of that is coming about.

New Jersey’s Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 24, directed the state to raise $500 million more to aid 31 poor and primarily urban school districts including Newark, Camden and Trenton, according to The New York Times. The 3-2 majority claimed the state deliberately violated past Supreme Court orders in Abbott v. Burke, the decades-old case under review.

“Like anyone else, the state is not free to walk away from judicial orders enforcing constitutional obligations,” wrote Justice Jaynee LaVecchia. She added that “the state made a conscious and calculated decision” to retract its commitment from two years earlier when the Abbott case last came before the court.

State Sen. President Stephen M. Sweeney said Christie “was well aware that his draconian cuts to education were illegal” and recounted that the governor pledged to maintain school funding during his 2009 campaign.

Christie slashed $1 billion in aid to the state’s 591 school districts from an overall budget of $10 billion.

Christie on May 24 called on the legislature to find the money itself – without raising taxes. “All of my work is done on this,” he said.

He further castigated the court as “unelected” during a town meeting in Cherry Hill, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Christie conveniently forgets that members of the state Supreme Court are appointed by elected officials.

The New Jersey order inspired Philadelphia Councilman Darrell Clarke to suing the state of Pennsylvania over the legality of funding cuts leaving the city’s schools up to $110 million in the lurch, according to The Philadelphia Daily News.

“It’s just not fair for us to have to ask the citizens to continue to pay in the city of Philadelphia, and we’re sitting on potentially a $700 million surplus from the state,” Clarke told the News. “Under the state’s statute (it is the state’s) primary responsibility to fund the school district.”

The city’s Law Department will consider City Council’s request to represent Council in such a suit, City Solicitor Shelley Smith said.

However, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter cast doubt on the prospects for success because the laws and politics differ between the two neighboring states.

Clarke’s plan prompted Kevin Harley, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett, to say, “This is a political stunt by City Council. To file a frivolous and meaningless lawsuit…maybe City Council should also sue President Obama because there’s no more stimulus funding.”

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott faces two lawsuits so far over his actions.

Though Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald wonders how “one Madison judge can stand in the way of the other two democratically elected branches of government,” one Madison judge in fact stood in the way.

“This case is the exemplar of values protected by the open meetings law: transparency in the government, the right of citizens to participate in their government and respect for the rule of law,” wrote Judge Maryann Sumi of Dane County Court.

The judge on May 26 granted a permanent injunction to void a law impeding collective bargaining rights for many state and local employees, The New York Times reported. She said that the March 9 Senate vote violates the open meetings law mandating at least two hours’ notice to the public.

The decision is being appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court as arguments were scheduled for today (Monday, June 6).

Gov. Walker proposed the law and signed it in the midst of massive protests in Madison, the state capital. With the exception of police officers and firefighters, the law prohibits public-sector unions from bargaining over health benefits and pensions. Negotiations over wages are permitted, but they must be approved in a public referendum if they exceed the inflation rate, the Times reported.

With all 14 Senate Democrats out of state, the remaining Republicans voted 18-1 to approve the measure within a half-hour sans any floor debate. Sumi cited evidence showing their failure to abide by even the two-hour notice permitted for good cause should a 24-hour notice be impossible or impractical.

While the Wisconsin case is still being adjudicated, both Walker and Christie made themselves vulnerable to legal action which finally turned around to bite them in the derriere. Their counterparts in other states could be dealt a similar blow.

We’ll find out. See you in court.  


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