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Why it matters that a judge blocked the Wisconsin GOP's power grab

A judge didn't just block the Republicans' power-grab, approved after last fall's midterms; he also jolted the fight over health care.
Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.
Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.

After struggling in recent elections cycles, Wisconsin Democrats scored major victories up and down the ballot in 2018. As regular readers may recall, voters in the Badger State elected a Democratic governor, re-elected a Democratic U.S. senator, re-elected a Democratic secretary of state, and elected a Democratic state attorney general. Even in the state legislature, Democratic candidates easily won the most votes.

Republicans didn't exactly take their electoral setback gracefully. On the contrary, GOP officials scrambled to approve a power-grab, stripping offices Democrats had won of key powers, before the newly elected officials were even sworn in.

The Republicans' posture was based on a staggering arrogance that democracy is an annoyance that must occasionally be ignored. It's a sentiment that effectively asked, "Who are the voters to tell us what to do with state government?"

Not surprisingly, the scheme is now the subject of an important lawsuit -- which, as of yesterday, isn't going the GOP's way.

A judge on Thursday temporarily blocked Wisconsin Republicans' contentious lame-duck laws limiting the powers of new Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who immediately used his restored authority to pull the state out of a multistate challenge to the Affordable Care Act.Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess brushed aside GOP concerns that the move would leave thousands of statutes passed in so-called extraordinary sessions susceptible to challenge. Republican legislative leaders vowed to appeal.

In terms of the practical implications, it's tempting to think the resolution of the fight will have to wait until various appeals are exhausted, but in one especially important area, that's not quite right.

Before losing his re-election bid, then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed on to a ridiculous legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act, intended to, among other things, gut protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. In 2018, the Democratic candidates for governor and attorney general -- Tony Evers and Josh Kaul, respectively -- told voters they'd withdraw Wisconsin from the lawsuit if voters elected them.

Evers and Kaul won, but the Republican power-grab blocked their ability to keep their promise -- at least until yesterday.

Specifically, the GOP measure approved late last year prevented the Democratic officials from withdrawing from any lawsuit without the approval of the Republican-led legislature. (The GOP majority only exists because of gerrymandering.)

Yesterday, however, the existing dynamic was jolted by a state court, which halted the Republicans' power-grab, and which invalidated the new law intended to tie the governor's and the state attorney general's hands.

With this in mind, less than two hours after the judge in this case temporarily blocked the GOP scheme, Wisconsin's Democratic governor directed Wisconsin's Democratic attorney general to do what they promised voters they'd do: they ended the state's support for the anti-health-care lawsuit.

Time will tell what the appeals process has in store for Wisconsin, but for now, the developments are good news for Democrats -- and democrats.