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Wisconsin’s Democratic governor reacted with frustration on Friday to a state Supreme Court decision that handed Republicans a major victory.
The conservative-leaning court ruled that political appointees do not have to leave their positions until a replacement is confirmed, a ruling that is seen as having weakened Gov. Tony Evers’ (D) ability to impose his agenda.
“The court’s decision — in the case of a conservative who refused to step down from an environmental policy board for more than a year after his term expired — marks another loss for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers as he faces re-election in November,” The Associated Press reported.
“Republicans have worked to reduce Evers’ powers since even before he took office and have refused to confirm many of his appointees. This week’s ruling gives them the ability to block them simply by declining to hold a nomination vote,” the report continued.
University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden remarked after the ruling: “Most people on the street would say when a term … expires, there’s an opening. The Supreme Court has said that commonsense understanding is not right.
The ruling “raises the question of why is there a term at all? Maybe we just say a person serves for life the way a U.S. Supreme Court justice does,” Burden added.
The AP noted further:
After Evers was elected in 2018 but before he took office, Republicans passed laws during a lame-duck session that temporarily stripped him of his power to appoint members of the state’s economic development agency and gave legislators the ability to block the executive branch agencies’ rules and policies.
So far, the Senate has refused to confirm about 42 percent of Evers’ 299 appointees, according to Evers’ office. What’s more, the Senate took the rare step in 2019 of voting not to confirm Evers’ agriculture secretary, Brad Pfaff, after Pfaff criticized GOP lawmakers for not providing enough money to help farmers with mental health problems. Pfaff had to step down.
The struggle over appointments took a turn in the spring of 2021 when Fred Prehn’s term on the Department of Natural Resources policy board ended. Evers appointed his successor, a move that would have given his appointees a one-member majority on the board and his administration the power to shape environmental policy.
Appointed by former GOP governor and 2016 presidential contender Scott Walker, Prehn has refused to step down and has since cast the deciding vote to boost the state’s wolf hunt quota and to get rid of limits in well water on a basket of chemicals collectively known as PFAS, which is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substance.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, filed suit to force Prehn to resign, but the state high court’s four-justice conservative majority ruled on Wednesday that a vacancy has to exist before a governor can actually fill it. Further, the vacancy only occurs if the incumbent dies, resigns, or is removed for bad conduct, the ruling said.
The result is that, effectively, a governor is unable to replace a previous governor’s appointees without Senate confirmation, and the state Senate is in the hands of the GOP.
The ruling stunned Democrats, the AP reported.
“Today, I remind the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Republican Party of this state that we do still live in a democracy, a very basic function of which is the peaceful and respectful transfer of power, even — and most especially — when you lose,” Evers said. “
“(His appointees) should be considered on their merit, and should have the opportunity to serve the people of our state, regardless of whether or not they were appointed by a Democrat or share the same ideas as Republicans in the Legislature,” Evers added.
Prehn isn’t the only Republican appointee who has refused to leave, the AP noted; the 13-member Wisconsin Technical College Board has three members whose terms ended in May 2021.