Supreme Court Hears Arguments on JCF Oversight of Stewardship Program

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering a legal challenge from Gov. Tony Evers (D) to the Wisconsin Legislature’s committee oversight power over the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. Oral arguments before the court were held April 17; news coverage is available here, here, and here.

Specifically, the lawsuit from Gov. Evers alleges that a provision giving the Joint Committee on Finance the power to review and veto funding awards under the Stewardship Program is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers. The supreme court accepted the case, styled Tony Evers v. Howard Marklein, in early February. Sen. Marklein (R-Spring Green) is the Republican Senate co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance.

The official webpage for the case is available here. The main argument brief from the governor and attorney general is available here. The primary reply brief from Republican legislative leaders is available here.

According to the supreme court’s table of pending cases, the court certified the following legal question for review:

Wisconsin Stat. § 23.0917 charges DNR with administering the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, through which DNR awards already-appropriated funds to expand public access to the State’s natural resources. Wisconsin Stat. § 23.0917(6m) and (8)(g)3. authorize the Joint Committee on Finance, a 16-member legislative committee, to veto DNR’s choices. Do those veto provisions facially violate the separation of powers?

During oral arguments, liberal Justice Jill Karofsky and attorneys representing the governor’s position focused on the apparently unlimited nature of the committee veto power in questioning its constitutionality. Justice Brian Hagedorn also appeared skeptical of the committee veto power and the legislature’s arguments defending it.

Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley and attorneys representing the legislature focused on the fact that most of the activities of the executive branch are approved or delegated by the legislature through statutes, appropriations, and rulemaking authorization, suggesting that the committee veto is a natural extension or retention of the legislature’s constitutional powers.

Gov. Evers announced the filing of the lawsuit in October of last year, claiming that Republicans in the Legislature are “violating the Wisconsin Constitution and intruding into executive powers.” The suit was filed as a petition for original action by Attorney General Kaul at the governor’s request. It is an uncommon and significant step for the supreme court to accept a petition for original action (meaning that a case is not developed in the lower courts before being decided by the supreme court).

The governor’s lawsuit raised two other issues in addition to the Stewardship Program: delayed approval of pay raises for UW System employees, and blocked updates to the state’s commercial building code and ethical standards for certain licensed professionals. However, the court only accepted the Stewardship Program aspect of the lawsuit for review.

Through a Joint Committee on Finance review process enacted during the Walker Administration, Republican legislators have periodically vetoed funding awards under the Stewardship Program for various reasons. Some media coverage of those situations is available here, here, and here.