WILL Press Release | Wisconsin Supreme Court Affirms the Right of City Employees to Live Where They Choose

Municipal residency requirements are anti-freedom, overbearing

June 23, 2016 – Milwaukee, WI – The Wisconsin State Supreme Court has correctly overturned a lower court decision that allowed the City of Milwaukee to defy state law and deny its employees the right to choose where to live and raise their families. The Wisconsin Institue for Law & Liberty filed an amicus brief supporting the rights of these city employees. Three years ago, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law barring all local governments in the state from requiring that employees live in the city or county in which they work. But the City of Milwaukee passed a resolution flouting the law and announced that it would continue to enforce its residency requirements. The City of Milwaukee Police Association, later joined by the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association, brought suit challenging the enforcement of Milwaukee’s residency requirement.

Although the city workers prevailed in the Circuit Court, the Court of Appeals in Milwaukee County reversed, saying that enforcement of the law would violate Milwaukee’s constitutional home rule powers. Wisconsin’s constitutional home rule amendment allows city and villages to govern their local affairs, but also permits the state legislature to override those decisions with laws that either address a matter of statewide concern or that apply uniformly to all municipalities in the state. In a highly unusual decision, the Court of Appeals conceded that the state law prohibiting residency applied to all municipalities in the state, but said that it would have a greater impact in Milwaukee than elsewhere.

Justice Gableman, writing for the majority, explained that the Supreme Court’s prior decisions had established that “a statute  satisfies  the  home  rule  amendment’s  uniformity requirement if it is  “on its face, uniformly applicable to every city or village.” He noted that no uniform rule would impact every municipality in the same ways.

WILL President and General Counsel Rick Esenberg noted, “As the son of a firefighter, I saw firsthand how frustrating it is for good men and women who want to serve the community be hamstrung by rules mandating where they must live in order to serve. You cannot buid a great city on coercion. You have to make it a place where people want to live. The legislature did the right thing and the Court was correct in concluding that all cities and villages, even Milwaukee, must follow state law.”

Thomas Kamenick, WILL Deputy Counsel and Litigation Manager stated, “This is the right decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It lifts the uncertainty facing municipal employees. Further, the majority recognizes that in this case the Legislature pursued a policy of statewide interest contrary to the findings of the Court of Appeals and wasn’t swayed by the claim that the policy was retributive against the City of Milwaukee.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling can be found here.


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