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Judge blocks GOP lame-duck laws


A Dane County judge on Thursday blocked a series of laws that limited the powers of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.

Within hours, Evers and Kaul used the decision to try to get Wisconsin out of a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act that their Republican predecessors joined. Until the judge’s ruling, Republican lawmakers were able to prevent them from doing that.

The laws were introduced by GOP lawmakers and signed by Gov. Scott Walker after Evers and Kaul won their elections but before they took office. The scope of the laws and the overnight floor session used to pass them drew national attention.

Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess on Thursday issued a temporary injunction to block the lame-duck laws after he found the Republican-controlled Legislature did not lawfully meet to pass them.

Evers called the ruling “a victory” for the Wisconsin Constitution and immediately directed Kaul to withdraw Wisconsin from the Affordable Care Act lawsuit. Kaul quickly filed a motion to do that.

Withdrawing the state from the lawsuit was a centerpiece to the pair’s campaigns, but they were blocked from doing so once they took office by the laws Republicans passed in December.

“The Legislature overplayed its hand by using an unlawful process to accumulate more power for itself and override the will of the people, despite the outcome of last November’s election,” Evers said in a statement. “I look forward to putting this disappointing chapter behind us so we can move forward together to put the needs of the people of Wisconsin first.”

GOP vows appeal

Minutes after the judge issued his ruling, Republican legislative leaders who wrote the laws promised to appeal it.

“Today’s ruling only creates chaos and will surely raise questions about items passed during previous extraordinary sessions, including stronger laws against child sexual predators and drunk drivers,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester said in a statement.

The Republicans’ appeal will likely be filed swiftly. Even so, Evers said he wouldn’t move with haste to exercise the powers returned to his office by the judge’s ruling.

“We will be moving forward not with speed but with thoughtfulness and make those decisions going forward,” Evers told reporters at the state Capitol. “We don’t view this as a window of opportunity. We think we’re right on the issues, and the judge made it very clear that the Constitution counts for something in this state.”

Judge: Illegal floor session

The League of Women Voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and three Wisconsin voters in their lawsuit filed in January alleged Republicans had convened an illegal legislative session and the laws should be voided.

“The League stands up for democracy whenever it is attacked, and today’s victory is a huge win for fairness in our system of government,” Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, said in a statement.

Niess in his ruling sided with those groups and barred anyone from enforcing the laws that were passed during a 24-hour floor period in December by Republican lawmakers over the objection of Democratic lawmakers, Evers and Kaul.

“The bottom line in this case is that the Legislature did not lawfully meet during its December 2018 ‘Extraordinary Session,’” therefore violating the state Constitution, Niess wrote.

Ruling vacates

GOP appointments

In addition to striking down the lame-duck laws, Niess’ decision vacated 82 appointments by Walker that senators confirmed during the same session.

The ruling gives Evers a chance to fill appointments, including ones on the UW System’s Board of Regents and Public Service Commission, and to appoint a new head at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Evers said he wouldn’t be scrambling to make the appointments to avoid a stay in Thursday’s ruling by a state appeals court—even if the appeal is made to a panel of judges in Waukesha who have traditionally been more friendly to Republicans than those in Dane County.

“I don’t believe a Waukesha judge is going to say the Constitution doesn’t mean anything,” he said.

After the ruling, the Public Service Commission canceled a meeting today on cases involving solar farms. With Walker appointee Ellen Nowak off the commission for now, the commission consists of two people, a Walker appointee and an Evers appointee.

Other legal actions

The lawsuit is one of four legal actions that have been filed over the lame-duck laws. In one, a federal judge in January struck down a part of the lame-duck laws that would have curbed early voting.

The other two cases are ongoing, with a hearing scheduled Monday in one of them. That lawsuit, brought by unions, alleges the lame-duck laws violate the state Constitution because they give powers that should belong to the executive branch to the Legislature.

The lawsuit that generated Thursday’s ruling centered on extraordinary sessions, which are floor periods legislators have used for nearly four decades to call themselves into session at a time when they’re not scheduled to be in the Capitol.

Misha Tseytlin, a lawyer for the Republican lawmakers, argued in a court hearing this week that striking down the lame-duck laws would pave the way for hundreds of laws passed in a similar method to fall. That would result in chaos and allow thousands of prisoners to contend their convictions were invalid, he said.

Niess downplayed such claims, calling them “alarmist.”

His ruling did not strike down any laws beyond those passed in December, but others could bring new lawsuits challenging older laws approved in extraordinary sessions.

Those bringing the lawsuit contended the state Constitution authorizes the Legislature to meet in just two circumstances: “At such time as provided by law” and when “convened by the governor in a special session.”

Niess agreed.

“The Legislature’s argument, if accepted, would swallow much of (the Constitution) whole,” he wrote.

By allowing the Legislature to “create its own authority” and meet in previously unscheduled legislative sessions with little or no notice because a group of legislators wants to means much of the section of the Constitution governing the Legislature “essentially disappears,” he wrote.

Niess wrote that the Constitution was aimed in part at limiting how often the Legislature met to prevent “legislative malfeasance, even corruption.”

“That the people’s liberty is imperiled by a Legislature that can meet at will any time, with little warning and even less of a published agenda, was a genuine threat on the minds of the people in 1848,” he wrote.

But Fitzgerald and Vos noted the Legislature has convened extraordinary sessions since 1980 and that they have been “widely supported by members of both parties.”

“The most recent extraordinary session was held for Governor Evers’ budget address,” they said in their statement.

Rick Esenberg, president and chief counsel for the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, said the decision “appears to be an extraordinary intrusion by the courts into the legislative process through a cramped reading of the Constitution,”

“It is inconsistent with long-standing practice and could throw the validity of numerous laws into question. It is unlikely to survive on appeal,” Esenberg said.

Democrats celebrate

Meanwhile, Democrats celebrated the ruling,

“This is a win for Wisconsin voters,” Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse said in a statement. “The lame duck session was a bait and switch to rush through more partisan bills, rig elections and consolidate more power in the hands of Republican politicians.”

Following the ruling, Shilling and Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh sent letters to Fitzgerald and Vos asking them to stop paying private attorneys to represent them now that the laws that allowed them to hire the outside attorneys had been blocked.

Fitzgerald and Vos didn’t respond to that request but filed notices that they planned to get authority today to hire private attorneys at taxpayer expense. An aide to Vos said that was as part of an attempt to intervene in a lawsuit over Wisconsin’s abortion laws.

A committee of lawmakers last week already approved hiring attorneys to get involved in that case, but now two more committees plan to take the same action.

In the lame-duck cases, lawmakers’ attorneys have been charging the state $500 an hour. Lawyers for Evers and others have been billing the state $275 an hour.

Angela Major 

Cam’Ron Baumann casts his line out into the Rock River near Monterey Park in Janesville on Thursday. He said it was his first time fishing this spring. Four of the next five days are expected to bring sunshine and seasonal temperatures for anyone considering outdoor activities.

Obituaries and death notices for March 22, 2019

Orval L. Appleman

Thomas Walter Frazier

Joseph Lee Goyette

Edith Coleen Mervin

Gregory J. Mueller Sr.

Todd William Rasmussen

Robert Wagner

The Rev. William Clifford Zanton

top story
Janesville loses artist, teacher, historian, friend


A woman who touched the lives of thousands through her work as an English teacher, visual artist and historian died March 9 of cancer.

Sherry Thurner, 68, was an Elkhorn native who spent much of her life teaching in Janesville schools. She retired in 2006 after teaching English and speech at Edison and Franklin middle schools and Craig High School.

She became a respected painter and then, while researching her family’s genealogy, she got interested in history, said her husband, Dick Thurner.

Thurner’s interest led to Janesville’s Oak Hill Cemetery, where she cataloged graves and researched histories of the people buried there.

“Once she got involved in something, she just put all her time and energy in it,” said Dick, who along with Sherry has been a Janesvillian since 1975.

“When she was teaching, she was totally dedicated to teaching and her students,” Dick recalled.

Thurner developed popular walking tours of the cemetery.

“She designed it. She wrote it up. She would walk it to time it out and make sure there weren’t too many hills,” said friend Joni Bozart.

She included stories of those buried on the hill, with Thurner sometimes dressing in period costumes.

“It was almost like a theater production, as far as the thought she put into it,” Bozart said.

“A lot of times you try to go through all the hoops,” Bozart said. “She just did it, and people loved it.”

After several years on her own, she joined the Rock County Historical Society to continue the work.

The society’s community engagement manager, Nate Fuller, said he wanted to develop cemetery tours when he joined the society in 2014. Thurner was the obvious person to turn to.

The first historical society tour was announced on Facebook in 2015, and around 900 people responded that they wanted to come. They had to do a lottery.

Fuller eventually decided another tour guide was needed, and Thurner trained him.

“She was one of the kindest persons you could ever work with,” he said. “Very open. Very willing to entertain questions and just an all-around wonderful person to have to work on projects like this.”

Thurner also logged her information on the local graves on the Find A Grave website, accounting for thousands of entries. She told Dick it was 15,000.

“That’s almost half the cemetery,” Dick said. “You walked around it, and she seemed to know it by heart.”

Fuller said Thurner had a wealth of stories and facts, some humorous, such as the fact that one person buried there is named Orlando Florida.

“She had powers of speech that could captivate an audience. It was never overly dramatic, but it certainly was to the point,” Fuller said. “It was just a joy to hear her speak.”

Dick recently dropped off his wife’s tour scripts at the historical society. They will be valuable resources, Fuller said.

Thurner dropped in regularly at a downtown second-hand shop, Carousel Consignments, to chat and drink coffee with co-owner Bozart.

Nearly every time, someone who knew Thurner would enter the store.

Bozart and Thurner talked often about Thurner’s cancer over the past two years.

One day, Thurner came in and said, “Joni, don’t be sad.”

“I knew it was going to be sad,” Bozart said. “The cancer had spread. ...

“She was never emotional. She was very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. But she made it clear she didn’t want to die. She did everything she could,” Bozart said.

Thurner looked for alternative treatment. She joined an experimental drug trial in Milwaukee involving immunotherapy, Dick said.

Thurner would often leave Carousel Consignments and cross the river to visit Raven’s Wish art gallery, where owner Alicia Reid featured her artwork.

“We had a cup of tea. We tried to solve the world’s problems and were rarely successful at that,” Reid said. “She was a friend as well as an artist who was a part of Raven’s Wish.”

Reid found Thurner’s work top notch.

“She would probably be in the top 5 to 10 percent of the folks that we represent,” Reid said. “She was comfortable in most any medium. … She made it look easy. She would bring pieces in for feedback. I was never unimpressed.”

Thurner often took old photos or postcards or wallpaper she found at Carousel Consignments and turned them into mixed-media artworks.

Reid encouraged Thurner to be a featured artist and take up an entire wall, but even though she was serious about her art, she never wanted the spotlight.

She was humble and a supporter of the other artists, often showing up for their receptions, where she wanted “to talk about art, the importance of art and why we do art,” Reid said.

Reid sent an email to her mailing list this week, inviting people to pick up brushes, markers, sketch pads, paints and other tools Thurner owned, in an effort “to send her Art Spirit broadly into the universe. …

“Channel a little bit of Sherry the next time you create,” she added.

Bozart and Reid, meanwhile, are missing their friend.

“She never had a negative thing to say about anybody. She always had positive things to say,” Bozart recalled.

“I’ll miss those conversations,” Reid said. “It leaves a big hole.”

top story
Details emerge of Janesville man's killing in Beloit


Police have a suspect and possible motive in the Feb. 9 shooting of a Janesville man in Beloit, according to a search warrant affidavit filed at the Rock County Courthouse.

The affidavit gives a variety of details about what police think happened when James M. Tomten, 28, was shot and killed, including the suggestion the shooting might have been a drug deal gone bad.

The information also includes suggestions the suspect has left the area. The Gazette is not revealing his identity because he has not been arrested or charged.

When asked for comment on details of the search warrant, Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski responded with a written statement saying the search warrant should have been sealed and asking news media not to release information from the search warrant.

The Gazette later talked with Beloit Police Capt. Tom Stigler about what parts of the search warrant police believe could endanger the safety of individuals involved and edited this story accordingly.

As reported earlier, Tomten was found dead in an SUV on a west-side residential street about 2:38 p.m. that Saturday. He had been shot more than two hours earlier, according to the affidavit.

Tomten’s wife told a detective Tomten had been at the Save-A-Lot grocery store at 1223 Park Ave. just before the shooting and had $4,000 to $5,000 in cash with him, according to the search warrant affidavit.

Video shows a person in a red hooded sweatshirt looking into Tomten’s parked SUV at 12:11 p.m. He appears to be talking on a cellphone and then gets into the SUV with Tomten when Tomten exits the store, according to the affidavit.

Video shows the SUV leaving the parking lot at 12:15 p.m., headed toward the place where Tomten was found, the 800 block of Vine Street, according to the document.

Police earlier said “cooperation from the neighborhood” puts Tomten’s vehicle on Vine Street at 12:20 p.m.

A witness told police a relative of the suspect had said months earlier the suspect was using crack cocaine and was robbing drug dealers, according to the affidavit.

Police talked to the suspect’s wife Feb. 15. She said he had a crack cocaine problem, but she thought he was getting better, according to the affidavit.

Police executed the search warrant at a Beloit home and found a firearm purchase receipt, a fishing license for the suspect, a smartphone, a bag with various kinds of ammunition, .22-caliber ammunition that was unfired or misfired, and five red hooded sweatshirts.

Tomten’s survivors include his wife, a high school sweetheart he married last June 25, and four children, according to his obituary.