MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to hear a case brought by a conservative law firm seeking to dramatically scale back the ability of governors to change the intent of legislators through partial budget vetoes.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty brought the case in July after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers made 78 partial vetoes to the state budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The Supreme Court, which is controlled 5-2 by conservatives, agreed to take the case as requested, skipping the usual process of lawsuits working their way up from lower courts first.
The case seeks to reverse more than four decades of precedent upholding the governor’s broad veto power. The lawsuit specifically seeks to overturn four of Evers’ 78 partial vetoes, arguing that he improperly and unlawfully used his broad constitutional powers to create new laws never approved by the Legislature.
The court will hear oral arguments in the coming months and likely issue a decision in the summer.
“Governor Evers abused his partial veto to create new laws out of whole cloth,” said Rick Esenberg, president of the group bringing the lawsuit. “The people of Wisconsin never intended the check on legislative power the governors’ veto represents to permit the governor to legislate on his own. We are pleased the court agreed that Governor Evers’ recent use of the partial veto warrants judicial review.”
Evers’ spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, didn’t address the state Supreme Court’s decision to take the case directly. She defended the vetoes, however, saying they “were entirely consistent with the Wisconsin Constitution, decades of decisions by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and vetoes by prior governors.”
Evers shrugged off the lawsuit when it was filed as an attempt to re-fight old political battles.
The governor’s veto powers are spelled out in the Wisconsin Constitution. The lawsuit does not challenge those powers, but instead how Evers used them, arguing that he violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches by creating new laws never intended by the Legislature.
Republican lawmakers are pushing a constitutional amendment, which voters would have to approve, that would prohibit governors from increasing funding through a partial veto, as Evers did this year. A Senate committee held a hearing on that measure this week.
Wisconsin governors, both Republican and Democratic, have long used the broad partial veto power to reshape the state budget. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker issued 98 partial vetoes in his last budget in 2017 and 104 in the one before that. Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson holds the record with 457 partial vetoes in 1991.
Esenberg said at the time the lawsuit was filed that it wasn’t targeting Evers, but rather addressing an “important principle” and that the group just didn’t get around to challenging it sooner.
Lawmakers and voters have been attempting to scale back the governor’s veto power almost since it was created in 1930. Since 1935, there have been 25 constitutional amendments proposed to limit the governor’s power.