MADISON - The Wisconsin Senate's top Republican told more than a dozen GOP appointees whom Democratic Gov. Tony Evers fired to return to work Friday, contending that an appeals court ruling this week wiped out the governor's actions.
Senate Republicans confirmed 82 of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker's appointees during a December lame-duck session. Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess ruled last week that the session was illegal and nullified all actions legislators took during it. Evers used the opening to rescind all 82 appointments.
But the 3rd District Court of Appeals stayed Niess' ruling on Wednesday pending the GOP's full appeal. That order has created confusion about whether the appointees can return to their jobs. Former Public Service Commission member Ellen Nowak tried to go back to her job Thursday morning but Evers' administration wouldn't let her in the building.
Hours later Evers handed 67 of the appointees their jobs back with no explanation. Most of them returned to spots on little-known boards and commissions. But Evers chose to keep 15 higher-profile positions open, including Nowak's PSC spot and two University of Wisconsin System regent positions.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald sent the appointees a letter on Friday telling them that the Legislature's attorneys believe that given the stay they can continue to serve.
"We are confident that the higher court will eventually overturn the Dane County judge entirely and make this decision permanent," Fitzgerald wrote. "We know for some of you this has been a frustrating and confusing situation."
Fitzgerald also sent a letter to Evers on Friday telling him he was rejecting the 67 appointments the governor made because those people still have their jobs thanks to the appeals court's stay.
Evers said Friday at a business conference in Madison that he has said some of the fired appointees could end up back in their positions. He added that the positions he filled were "relatively low-profile" and "we are having trouble finding people to serve."
It wasn't clear if the governor meant it was difficult to find anyone to work for the government in general or for his administration specifically. He didn't take follow-up questions.
He said he hadn't seen the letter Fitzgerald sent, but dismissed it as part of Republican "huffing and puffing."
The GOP took a number of other actions during the lame-duck session to weaken Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul before they took office, including passing laws that prohibit Evers from withdrawing the state from lawsuits and forcing Kaul to get legislative approval before settling lawsuits.
The moves outraged Democrats and have sparked multiple lawsuits. Niess' decision to invalidate the entire lame-duck session stems from a challenge brought by liberal-leaning groups that allege the session was illegal because it wasn't scheduled at the beginning of the 2017-19 biennium.
Despite the appeals court's stay, most of the laws remain blocked. Another Dane County judge ruled in a separate case Tuesday that key portions of the statues violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. Republicans filed notice with the 3rd District on Thursday that they plan to appeal that ruling.