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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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A true apology to Judge Maryann Sumi
Dane County judge doesn't deserve attacks -- or plaudits -- for upholding the law
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Maryann Sumi
Maryann Sumi

Dear Judge Sumi:

The other day, the Dane County Republican Party issued a fake apology over having attacked you for blocking Gov. Scott Walker's radical anti-union agenda. I believe you are owed a genuine one, and not just from this group.

In the GOP's statement, which has drawn national notice, including on The Colbert Report, you are "a leftist" who "goes to cocktail parties held by leftists" and "shops at organic gourmet food shops run by leftists." It claims you ruled as you did to avoid being "exiled from [your] lifestyle," hanging around people who feel "righteous vandalizing our homes and keying our cars" and chowing down "foie gras at cocktail parties.

Of course, this eruption is an embarrassment. It makes the Republicans of Dane County look like fools, which I do not believe is a fair assessment. The people who put this out are fools, but they surely don't have the universal support of Republicans here.

You are owed an apology from GOP party members who had no role in and do not support this childish attack. Since I am unaware of any who have come forward to make it, I hereby do so on their behalf.

I'd also like to apologize for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who has set the tone for such unhinged displays of distemper with his own public comments, such as calling your rulings on this matter "judicial activism at its worst."

Scott Fitzgerald may be as mean as he seems, but he's not as stupid. He knows the Legislature violated the state's Open Meetings Law when it hastily convened on March 9 to pass a bill to gut the collective bargaining rights of state employees, cut Medicaid benefits to people in need, and tighten Walker's political grip over state agencies.

The vote was rushed through without giving the requisite 24 hours' notice (or even the two hours' notice for emergency situations, which this was not) because the GOP didn't want the public to know about it. Sen. Glenn Grothman admitted as much on the night of the vote when he told Isthmus blogger Jack Craver, "You were either going to pass it with an angry mob of 1,000 people or an angry mob of 100,000 people."

That's not a good reason for not following the law.

Last Friday, Judge Sumi, you put this case on hold. You vowed to wait until the named Republican defendants - Scott Fitzgerald, his Assembly Speaker brother Jeff, Senate President Mike Ellis and Senate Majority Leader Scott Suder - either waive their right to defend themselves in court or else show up to do so.

Scott Fitzgerald says that isn't going to happen: "We passed the law correctly, legally the first time," he claims. "Passing the law correctly and legally a second or third time wouldn't change anything. It certainly wouldn't stop another activist judge and room full of lawyers [from trying] to start this merry-go-round all over again."

Again, Fitzgerald is showing his disrespect not just for you but for the judiciary as a whole. He's also being disingenuous.

If Fitzgerald and his fellow defendants really believed they acted legally, they would welcome this chance to prove it. But lacking any such confidence, they remain in hiding, much like the 14 Senate Dems who fled the state to prevent this vote - but without any corresponding component of sacrifice (ever spend time in Rockford?), principle or courage.

I'm sorry, Judge Sumi, that your role on this case has tainted your reputation as a fair, competent and impartial judge. I'm sorry you are now being personally attacked, and your family is being attacked, by this hodgepodge of moral midgets. That is a shameful thing.

But I do need to say, loud and clear, that you are not a hero. Given that you're an appointee of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson who has given money to his campaigns, I'm pretty sure you're not a "leftist," but that's beside the point. You've merely done what any of your 16 fellow Dane County judges would have been compelled to do, by the facts and the law, had this case come their way.

And that makes it all the more tragic that, so far as I know, not a single one of your Dane County peers has come forward to publicly defend you against these malicious attacks. Perhaps they fear this would make them, too, targets of Republican extremists - a safe assumption but not one that ought to occasion their silence. This, too, is shameful, and I apologize for it.

Now, Judge Sumi, as a result of your rulings, the Republicans are in a bind. They don't want to go back and try passing the bill legally, because they're not sure they have the votes - especially now that it looks like several GOP senators will be facing recall elections.

Rather, the Republicans are apparently counting on the state Supreme Court to have their back - especially if Justice David Prosser survives his electoral near-death experience and inevitable recount. (While there's little doubt the bill was passed illegally, a tortured reading of precedent rulings could lead the court to conclude that separation of powers doctrines leave it powerless to act.)

I'm not sure this is a safe assumption. On the last major open government case, Schill vs. Wisconsin Rapids, decided last year, the court's conservatives - Justices Annette Ziegler, Pat Roggensack and Michael Gableman - emerged as its strongest proponents of openness. They might just surprise those who assume they'll blithely rubber-stamp whatever Walker and the Republicans want to do.

If I'm wrong about that, I'll be sure to apologize.

Bill Lueders (blueders@isthmus.com) is news editor of Isthmus.

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