A Fitchburg Democratic state lawmaker who is paralyzed from the chest down contends Assembly Republican leaders broke state law last month by not telling him when early-morning votes would be held to enact a package of controversial laws during a lame-duck session — and he’s asking that those votes be voided as a consequence.
Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal this week that he will file a complaint Thursday with Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.
But a conservative legal group, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said in a statement Wednesday that Anderson’s complaint is baseless because the state Supreme Court previously held that courts cannot hear open-meetings-law complaints against the Legislature.
By filing the complaint, an advance copy of which was provided to the State Journal, Anderson said he is asking Ozanne to file suit against Assembly GOP leaders, alleging they violated a provision of the state open meetings law. It says that “no duly elected or appointed member of a governmental body may be excluded from any meeting of such body.”
Anderson was not present for key votes on the controversial lame-duck laws that he opposes, one of which curtailed the timeline for early voting and the powers of the governor and attorney general.
He said that happened after he asked Assembly Republican leaders, the night before the vote, when it would be held — but got no answer. The offices of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.
Anderson said health and logistical issues related to his disability — he was paralyzed in a 2010 car accident and uses a wheelchair — prevented him from being able to sit in the state Capitol all afternoon and night, waiting for votes to be held.
Anderson said he must coordinate his arrival and departure from the Capitol with health aides who drive him and help with other tasks. Anderson also said doctors have advised him, for health reasons, not to sit in his wheelchair for more than 16 hours at a time.
Lawmakers originally planned to convene the afternoon of Dec. 4 to pass the bill package but instead held a series of closed-door meetings throughout the afternoon and overnight. They emerged in the predawn hours Dec. 5 to convene the session and pass the bills, sending them to former Gov. Scott Walker, who later signed them.
“I just remember waking up and the vote had already happened. I was frustrated,” Anderson said. “I represent my district and I’m supposed to be there to act in the process.”
Anderson later was able to have his votes paired on two of the bills — a process by which two lawmakers, typically from opposite parties, agree to withhold what would be offsetting votes to account for an excused absence. The paired vote becomes part of Assembly record but does not count toward the official vote tally.
Anderson said he raised concerns with Assembly GOP leaders on at least one other occasion, in 2017, about how issues related to his disability require that he have advance notice of early-morning votes.
In the case of the lame-duck laws, Anderson’s vote would not have been decisive — the bills passed easily in the Assembly, where Republicans have a 63-36 majority. Still, Anderson noted he also wasn’t able to cast procedural votes related to the bills or speak against them during the Assembly debate.
According to the state open meetings law, “any action taken at a meeting of a governmental body held in violation of” it “is voidable” upon an action brought by the state attorney general or local district attorney.
Ozanne could not be reached Wednesday to comment on Anderson’s complaint.
Tom Kamenick, deputy counsel for Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, issued a statement saying Anderson’s complaint lacks merit.
“To avoid violating separation of powers principles, courts will not review whether the Legislature followed its own rules or procedural statutes” with the exception of constitutional requirements, Kamenick said.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said in a statement that the state Supreme Court “did in fact conclude that the courts do not have jurisdiction over how the Legislature seeks to interpret the open meetings law.”
But Lueders added he believes marathon meetings by lawmakers into the wee hours of the night violate the spirit of the open meetings law.
“This is an abusive practice precisely because it deprives people the ability to observe the Legislature in real time, which is an ideal the law seeks to protect,” Lueders said.
Anderson said the issues that arose last month were particularly jarring because he said most lawmakers and legislative staffers have been very helpful addressing issues related to his disability since he took office in 2017.
The Assembly sergeant-at-arms office has gone to lengths to ensure he can participate fully, Anderson said, such as building a device to help him cast votes on the Assembly floor. They also have provided a special clip-on microphone to Anderson that allows him to give speeches on the Assembly floor while the chamber is in session.
“This is the first time I’ve ever run into an instance where the Legislature has put up a barrier in front of me and said ‘No, you’re not allowed to participate,’” Anderson said. “It’s hurtful and it’s wrong.”
Assistant Assembly Democratic Leader Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, said she applauds Anderson for bringing the complaint and “highlighting this issue.”
“They’re not giving him reasonable accommodations, and that’s all he’s asking for,” Hesselbein said.