MADISON (Reuters) - Wisconsin Republicans said on Friday a bill stripping Wisconsin public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights was in effect after it was published by a legislative agency despite a judge's order against publication.
The move looked certain to stir fresh controversy over the tactics used in efforts to implement and block the measure, which in recent weeks sparked massive demonstrations and brought national attention to Wisconsin.
Republican supporters of the bill said the judge's temporary restraining order (TRO) on publication had not applied to the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), which published the legislation, Wisconsin Act 10, electronically on Friday.
Legal publication of the legislation is required for it to go into effect.
The restraining order was issued last week by a judge hearing a complaint filed by the Dane County District Attorney against several Republican legislators who orchestrated the law's passage two weeks ago.
Scott Fitzgerald, the head of the GOP-controlled Senate, said the LRB's action made the bill "the law" and insisted the action did not violate the TRO because it did not mention the bureau specifically.
"If the DA didn't want the Legislative Reference Bureau to publish, then the DA should have made sure that they were part of the restraining order."
Mike Huebsch, a member of Republican Governor Scott Walker's cabinet, said the administration would now "carry out the law as required."
The LRB is a non-partisan agency whose director is appointed by the leaders of the Wisconsin State Assembly and Wisconsin State Senate -- both Republicans who support the measure.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice, which has defended the bill in court, called the publication "lawful" and said it would evaluate how the LRB move "affects pending litigation."
The move seemed to catch Democrats by surprise. A spokeswoman for Pete Barca, the top Democrat in the state Assembly, asked journalists seeking comment to be patient.
"We're seeking information from various sources," Melanie Conklin wrote in an e-mail, "hoping for further clarification soon."
The publication came despite a letter from Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette dated on Friday instructing the LRB "not to proceed with publication until I contact you with a new publication date."
Governor Walker had strongly pushed the legislation, saying it was part of a package needed to combat the state's budget deficit.
Union and Democratic critics said that argument was a smoke screen for busting state workers' unions. The issue attracted hundreds of thousands to demonstrations against the measure.
Democratic state senators fled the state in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to block a vote on the measure, and the battle over the bill became a symbol for other states where unions were trying to preserve bargaining powers as Republican-led legislatures sought to curb them.
(Writing by James Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton)