Open Meetings and Direct Democracy

August 3, 2012

As many readers may remember, Wisconsin, in early 2011, passed a law changing collective bargaining rights for public employees in the state.  The bill, WI Legis 10 (2011-2012), famously led to a round of recall elections that ultimately changed partisan control of the State Senate. Less well known was that the law was also challenged in court, eventually making it all the way to the State Supreme Court.

The case of State ex rel Ozanne v. Fitzgerald, 798 N.W.2d 436, concerned a challenge to the state’s collective bargaining law based on the state’s Open Meetings Law, W.S.A. 19.81 et seq.  The Open Meetings Law (and similar equivalents in other states) is meant to guarantee the public access to government deliberations.  The essential allegation in the Ozanne case was that the legislature did not give proper notice of the final meeting on the bill.  The Court declined to address the issue on separation of powers grounds, upheld the law, and the rest is swiftly becoming history.

That case, decided in June 2011, was very much on my mind as I read about a case currently coming to a head in Michigan.  Early in 2011, Michigan passed the ‘emergency manager law,’ which amended a pre-existing law to allow certain state-appointed financial managers new powers, including the ability to modify public sector union contracts. See MI Legis 4 (2011).   Despite differences, the Michigan law and the Wisconsin law are often brought up in the same conversation because of their respective effects on public sector unions.  See e.g 2011 WLNR 15551937.

Similar to Wisconsin, Michigan’s Bill is now also at the center of litigation that pits technical statutory requirements against the popular will.  A group is seeking a referendum on the law, but their question may never make the ballot due to font on the forms they circulated to gather signatures.  MCLA 168.482(2) requires the forms used to collect signatures for a petition to contain a heading in ’14 point font,’ though ’14 point’ isn’t defined anywhere in the law.

As two justices noted when the Supreme Court took up the case, the concept of font arose from the use of printing blocks.  See 2012 wl 2865779.  How the concept translates to the digital era will apparently decide whether or not Michigan voters get a plebiscite on their emergency manager law.

Research References

To find more on the font dispute as it’s made its way to the State Supreme Court, try the following search in MINEWS: Font & petition & emergency /3 manager.  2012 WLNR 15634213 contained some records of the actual oral arguments in the case.

The docket number for the Michigan Supreme Court case is, 145387, if you run a search for that DOCK-MI-APPSCT, the relevant docket will come up.

To find more on the Michigan law, I tried emergency /3 manager in various MINEWS and MI-CS databases, limiting results to results after the start of 2011.  To find the legislation, I had to go to the database for bills from before the current calendar year, MI-Legis-old.  Similarly, to find more on the Wisconsin law, I tried various searches using collective! /3 bargain! in similar state-specific databases, with similar date restrictions.