Updated at: 01/18/2013 4:37 PM
By TODD RICHMOND and SCOTT BAUER
(AP) MADISON, Wis. - A federal appeals court on Friday upheld Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s contentious law stripping most public workers of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights in a decision hailed by Republicans but not undoing a state court ruling keeping much of the law from being in effect.
The decision marks the latest twist in a two-year battle over the law that Walker proposed in February 2011 and passed a month later despite massive protests and Senate Democrats leaving for Illinois in a failed attempt to block a vote on the measure.
The law forced public union members to pay more for health insurance and pension benefits, which Walker said was needed to address a budget shortfall. It also took away nearly all their bargaining rights.
Walker and Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who fought for passage of the bill, called the ruling a win for Wisconsin taxpayers.
"As we’ve said all along, Act 10 is constitutional," Walker said in a statement, referring to the law’s official designation.
The decision, however, does not resolve a flurry of other lawsuits that have been filed over the law.
The most positive ruling for unions came in September when a state circuit court judge said the law was unconstitutional as applied to school and local government workers. That ruling is under appeal to the state appeals court.
While Friday’s 2-1 ruling by a panel of the 7th Circuit could influence the state appeals court and others hearing the cases, it’s not binding, said Paul Secunda, a Marquette University law professor. It certainly doesn’t signal the end of the legal fights, he said, and it could be appealed to the full federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The public unions will fight until every one of their arguments are considered in full," Secunda predicted.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he hoped the win would bring an end to the other lawsuits.
"While there are no guarantees, it is my hope that this decision will pave the way for resolving any remaining challenges in a manner that supports the legislative decisions made by our elected officials," Van Hollen said in a statement.
The law in question prohibits most public employees from collectively bargaining on anything except wages. It also requires public unions to hold an annual election to see whether members want the organization to continue to exist, and it bars unions from automatically withdrawing dues from members’ paychecks.
Walker specifically exempted public safety unions from the law’s effects, however. He said he didn’t want to risk police and firefighters going on strike in protest of the law’s provisions.
Seven public unions, including the state’s largest teachers’ union and the largest statewide public sector union, challenged the law’s constitutionality in 2011. They argued Walker exempted public safety workers because a number of their unions supported his campaign, violating the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.
U.S. District Judge William Conley in March struck down the annual recertification requirement and automatic withdrawal prohibition. He upheld the rest of the law.
The appeals court upheld the law in its entirety Friday. The judges said the state was free to draw a line between public safety and other unions. The state had a rational basis to protect the public safety unions and the law didn’t explicitly discriminate against other public worker unions based on their political leanings, the court said.
"Distinguishing between public safety unions and general employee unions may have been a poor choice, but it is not unconstitutional," the opinion said.
The union attorney who argued the case, Leon Dayan, did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the teachers union that led the lawsuit, said they were reviewing their options.
"What is so abundantly clear is that Act 10 was never about addressing the fiscal needs of the state but instead a ploy to eliminate workers’ rights to have a voice through their union - political payback for citizens who didn’t endorse the governor," Bell said.
Lester Pines, the union attorney in the state case where portions of the law were struck down, said he would have been happier if the appeals court would have upheld the judge’s earlier ruling. But Pines said the decision has no effect on his case, which argues different legal points.
In that case, a Dane County circuit judge ruled in September that the law violated constitutional rights of free speech, free association and equal representation. That ruling blocked the law from being applied to school and local government workers, but it remains in effect for state workers and employees of the University of Wisconsin System. The state has appealed.
A Madison chapter of the AFL-CIO and a Dane County chapter of AFSCME also have challenged the law in federal court. A law enforcement union also has filed a state lawsuit challenging the measure. Both of those cases are pending.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)