The Wisconsin Supreme Court is hearing arguments about a residency requirement for employees of the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee has a law requiring city employees to live within Milwaukee’s boundaries. The state legislature passed a law forbidding cities from making or enforcing such laws. Last summer, the 1st District Court of Appeals found that law in violation of the Home Rule Amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution. The constitutional question is: when can state lawmakers overrule the legislative decisions of cities and villages?
You might think this would be clear. On November 4, 1924, voters in Wisconsin overwhelmingly approved the Home Rule Amendment, which added to the state Constitution:
Cities and villages organized pursuant to state law may determine their local affairs and government, subject only to this constitution and to such enactments of the legislature of statewide concern as with uniformity shall affect every city or every village. The method of such determination shall be prescribed by the legislature.
It turns out it hasn’t been so simple, in practice, to figure out what those 51 words mean. In a recent high-profile case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld Act 10, Governor Walker’s signature legislation; among other things, the law forbade Milwaukee from contributing to its employees’ pension funds. The plaintiffs argued that this provision violated home rule. Michael Gableman, writing for the court majority, said it was fine.
This raises questions. First of all: if a state law needs to affect every city uniformly in order to supersede local government, how can it be OK to specifically target Milwaukee’s pension fund? Here the exact wording of 62.623 is critical. The law doesn’t mention Milwaukee: it applies to “any employee retirement system of a 1st class city.” The “uniformity” requirement in the Home Rule amendment has generally been understood very liberally, allowing laws which affect cities in different size classes differently as long as the application within each class is uniform.
To construe the amendment as meaning that every act of the Legislature relating to cities is subject to a charter ordinance unless the act of the Legislature affected with uniformity every city from the smallest to the greatest, practically destroys legislative control over municipal affairs, assuming that laws could be drawn which would meet the requirements of the amendment so construed.
That’s from Van Gilder v. City of Madison (1936), one of the first Wisconsin Supreme Court cases to wrestle with the limits of home rule. I will have more to say about Chief Justice Marvin Rosenberry’s decision in that case, some of it pretty salty. But for now let’s stick to the point at hand. The law can be argued to pass the “uniformity” test because it applies equally to all cities of the first class. There is only one city of the first class in Wisconsin, and there has only ever been one city of the first class in Wisconsin, and it’s Milwaukee.
That’s the argument the Walker administration made in defense of the law. But the court’s upholding the law rejects that defense, and the uniformity clause as a whole, as irrelevant the question before it.
In sum, our home rule case law instructs us that, when reviewing a legislative enactment under the home rule amendment, we apply a two-step analysis. First, as a threshold matter, the court determines whether the statute concerns a matter of primarily statewide or primarily local concern. If the statute concerns a matter of primarily statewide interest, the home rule amendment is not implicated and our analysis ends. If, however, the statute concerns a matter of primarily local affairs, the reviewing court then examines whether the statute satisfies the uniformity requirement. If the statute does not, it violates the home rule amendment.
no merit exists in the plaintiffs’ contention that the legislative enactment at issue in a home rule challenge must be a matter of statewide concern and uniformly applied statewide to withstand constitutional scrutiny.
Now this is weird, right? Because what’s described and rejected as “the plaintiff’s contention” is what the constitution says. Gableman replaces the Constitution’s and with an or: in his analysis, a state law supersedes local powers if it’s either of statewide concern or applied uniformly to all cities.
Is this an act of wanton judicial activism? Well, not exactly. The phrase “as home rule case law instructs us” is important here. The opinion marshals a long line of precedents showing that the Home Rule amendment has typically been read as an or, not an and. It goes all the way back to Rosenberry’s opinion in Van Gilder v. City of Madison; and the reason there’s such a long list is that all those other cases rely on Van Gilder, which has become the foundation of Wisconsin’s theory of home rule.
Which brings us to the main point. I’m not a legal scholar, but what the hell, this is blogging, I get to have an opinion, and here’s mine: Van Gilder v. City of Madison was wrongly decided and has been screwing up home rule jurisprudence for 80 years.
Rosenberry’s first go at explaining home rule goes like this:
The home–rule amendment certainly confers upon cities plenary powers to deal with local affairs and government subject to the limitations contained in the amendment itself and other provisions of the Constitution. The powers of municipalities are subject to the limitation that the municipality cannot by its charter deal with matters which
are of state–wide concern and its power to enact an organic law dealing with local affairs and government is subject to such acts of the Legislature relating thereto as are of state–wide concern and affect with uniformity all cities.
The “and” between statewide concern and uniformity is clear here. But Rosenberry also says that municipalities simply have no power to address matters of statewide concern: its powers, he says, are restricted to “local affairs and government” as distinct from matters of statewide concern. So what cases are the second clause (“its power to enact an organic law….”) referring to? Only those matters which are not of statewide concern, but which are affected by state laws which are of statewide concern. Rosenberry gives no examples of such a situation, nor can I really imagine one, so I don’t think that’s really the conclusion he means to draw. Later in the opinion, he settles more clearly on the policy adopted by Gableman in Madison Teachers Inc. v. Walker:
when the Legislature deals with local affairs as distinguished from
matters which are primarily of state–wide concern, it can only do so effectually by an act which affects with uniformity every city. It is true that this leaves a rather narrow field in which the home–rule amendment operates freed from legislative restriction, but there is no middle ground.
the limitation contained in the section upon the power of the Legislature is a limitation upon its power to deal with the local affairs and government of a city or village. Care must be taken to distinguish between the power of the Legislature to deal with local affairs and its power to deal with matters primarily of state–wide concern. When the Legislature deals with local affairs and government of a city, if its act is not to be subordinate to a charter ordinance, the act must be one which affects with uniformity every city. If in dealing with the local affairs of a city the Legislature classifies cities so that the act does not apply with uniformity to every city, that act is subordinate to a charter ordinance relating to the same matter. A charter ordinance of a city is not subject to an act of the Legislature dealing with local affairs unless the act affects with uniformity every city. State ex rel. Sleeman v. Baxter, supra. When the Legislature deals with matters which are primarily matters of state–wide concern, it may deal with them free from any restriction contained in the home rule amendment.
Now the ground has shifted. In Rosenberry’s reading, when the home rule amendment refers to “local affairs and government” it specifically intends to exclude any “matters of statewide concern.” I can accept this as a reading of those four words, but not as a reading of the whole sentence. If Roseberry is correct, then the phrase “of statewide concern” is never active in the amendment: a local affair is, by definition, not a matter of statewide concern. I think when your interpretation of a constitutional passage means that part of the text never applies, you need to think twice about your interpretation.
What’s more, Rosenberry holds that the state has the power to override local officials on purely local matters, of no statewide concern whatsoever, as long as it does so uniformly. If that is so, what does he think the words “of statewide concern” are doing in the Home Rule amendment at all?
To me, the amendment has a pretty plain meaning. Something like a residency requirement for city employees or a fiscal decision about a city pension plan is plainly a local affair. It may also be a matter of statewide concern. The state legislature can enact a law overriding local legislation if the matter is of statewide concern and the law in question applies uniformly to all cities. I think Rosenberry just plain got this wrong in Van Gilder and it’s been wrong ever since.