A Dane County judge voided two contracts GOP legislative leaders signed that put taxpayers on the hook for more than $1 million in legal fees, ruling lawmakers don’t have the authority to retain private counsel for a redistricting suit that hasn’t been filed yet.

Judge Stephen Ehlke yesterday also enjoined Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, from authorizing further payments on the deals and ordered the plaintiffs shall recover costs and fees.

Vos said the decision will be appealed and that GOP lawmakers had expected a loss in Dane County Circuit Court.

“Surprise, surprise, a liberal judge listens to a liberal group and does what they want,” Vos said in an interview with WisPolitics.com.

Lester Pines, the lead attorney for the teachers who filed the suit, said the legislative leaders should compel the law firm to repay the money for the illegal contracts. If they won’t, “we’ll look at that question,” he said.

WisPolitics.com first reported in February that LeMahieu and Vos had signed the contracts with Virginia-based Consovoy McCarthy and Bell Giftos St. John LLC, of Madison, in anticipation of a lawsuit being filed over redistricting.

The Consovoy McCarthy contract capped legal expenses at $965,000 through the end of 2021, not counting expenses, with monthly payments of $30,000 until a lawsuit is filed. They would then jump to $200,000 a month.

The contract with the firm of former Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John’s firm includes no limit on overall costs. But it sets the hourly rate at $375 for attorneys and $125 an hour for paralegals.

Ehlke wrote in his ruling that hiring the firms before a suit is filed is not a core power of the Legislature.

What’s more, the lame-duck law Republicans approved in December 2018 allowing them to intervene in suits doesn’t give them the power to retain private counsel in anticipation of a suit.

Ehlke found the Consovoy McCarthy contract a clear violation of the law. He wrote the Bell Giftos St. John contract was more complex because it also included a pledge to provide legal advice “regarding constitutional and statutory requirements and principles relating to redistricting” in addition to assisting Consovoy with an anticipated suit.

But he found reading the contract as a whole suggested the primary purpose was pre-litigation work. Ehlke wrote lawmakers could probably hire private attorneys to review maps they may draw to ensure they comply with existing law.

“What the statute does not authorize — and what the legislature has done here — is preemptive hiring of counsel to represent it in litigation that may not even occur,” Ehlke wrote.

Pines slammed GOP leaders for their use of taxpayer dollars to cover private attorneys.

WisPolitics.com has been tracking the legal costs to taxpayers for the private attorneys GOP legislative leaders have hired since January 2019. For bills submitted through the end of March, the tab had eclipsed $7.1 million.

“It’s important to recognize that Robin Vos believes that he has unlimited power to use taxpayers’ money for whatever purpose he wants,” Pines said. “This decision is a message to him and to Majority Leader LeMahieu that they are stewards of the taxpayers’ funds. They are not authoritarians who have an unlimited amount of taxpayer money that they can throw around for whatever purpose they want.”

Read the ruling.

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