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Walker appointee tries to return to work after court stay

MADISON, Wis. — One of former Gov. Scott Walker’s appointees tried to return to her job Thursday after a state appellate court stayed a court ruling that her appointment and dozens of others were invalid — only to be turned away at the door.

Ellen Nowak tried to return to her job as chairwoman of the Public Service Commission along with her assistant, Bob Seitz. A security guard stopped both of them and a human resources manager appeared and took them into a private room. When they emerged, Nowak said she had been told that Gov. Tony Evers’ administration doesn’t believe the stay reinstates the Walker appointees.

“Now I’ll go home and walk my dog, I guess,” Nowak said. “It’s really unfortunate we’re at this stage.”

Republican senators confirmed the appointments of Nowak and 81 other Walker appointees during a lame-duck session in December. GOP legislators also passed a sweeping package of legislation during the session that limits Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul’s powers. The laws prevent Evers from pulling the state out of lawsuits without legislative approval and prohibit Kaul from settling cases without legislative approval. They also give the Legislature the right to intervene in lawsuits using their own attorneys rather than Kaul’s Department of Justice lawyers. In the past lawmakers needed a judge’s permission to join cases.

The laws are designed to weaken Evers and Kaul, who are both Democrats, and to ensure that Republicans can defend in court state laws that Evers and Kaul don’t support. The lame-duck session has sparked multiple lawsuits from Democrats and their allies.

Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess ruled last week that Republicans convened the session illegally because it wasn’t included in the floor period schedule the Legislature approved at the beginning at the 2017-19 biennium. The ruling stemmed from an action filed in February by liberal-leaning groups, including the League of Women Voters.

After the ruling, Evers immediately ordered Kaul to withdraw from a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act and the next day rescinded the Walker appointees.

But the 3rd District Court of Appeals granted Republicans’ request for a stay of Niess’ ruling on Wednesday, creating questions about whether the appointees now have their jobs back.

Republican lawmakers’ attorney, Misha Tseytlin, said in an email to The Associated Press that the stay means the appointees are legally back on the job.

Tseytlin sent a letter Thursday to Evers’ attorneys suggesting that the governor is violating the stay by not allowing the appointees back to work. He wrote that the appeals court specifically noted in its stay that irreparable injury could result from not enforcing potentially valid appointments. He said that mention of the appointments makes it “clear beyond any doubt that the Court of Appeals intended these ‘potentially valid appointments’ to be put back in place.”

“It is a very serious matter for the Governor of this State to violate an unambiguous court order issued by the Court of Appeals,” Tseytlin wrote.

Evers’ attorney, Lester Pines, said the governor acted completely within his authority when he rescinded the appointments because he acted before the appeals court issued its stay.

“The governor had every right to do what he did,” Pines said. “That’s our legal position, despite what the Legislature’s counsel has said.”

Jeffrey Mandell, an attorney for the liberal groups that brought the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Despite the stay, key portions of the lame-duck laws remain blocked. Another Dane County judge, Frank Remington, issued a preliminary injunction in a separate case Monday that blocks sections of the laws that limit Evers and Kaul’s powers, including the language barring Evers from pulling out of lawsuits. Remington found that those provisions violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

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