Wisconsin Supreme Court: Milwaukee can no longer enforce residency requirement

MADISON — The Wisconsin Supreme Court says Milwaukee can no longer enforce its residency requirement.

The court ruled 5-2 on Thursday, June 23rd that Milwaukee's long-standing requirement that its public workers live in the city is subject to a state law barring such restrictions.

The ruling Thursday reverses a state appeals court decision that said Milwaukee's residency requirement could not be superseded by a state law passed in 2013.

That law prohibits local governments from enforcing any residency requirements beyond requiring police and firefighters to live within 15 miles of the government unit.

Milwaukee has required its more than 7,000 employees to live within the city boundaries for more than 75 years. The lawsuit challenging Milwaukee's refusal to abide by the law was brought by unions representing police and firefighters in the city.

David Seager

"Pleased. Excited. Relief," David Seager with the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association said after the ruling.

Seager says the relief comes for employees who would frequently ask him if they should feel comfortable moving out of the city while the case worked its way through the court system.

"There’s always that sense of ‘Should I stay? Should I go? Should I take the chance?’' But ultimately, we prevailed," Seager said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is blasting the ruling, calling it a "sad day" for his city and the state. Barrett said the ruling is an attack on local government, and one that jeopardizes public safety.

"We`ve had off-duty officers who`ve responded to problems because they live in this city. It`s worked for 75 years," Barrett said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

Barrett says the ruling is the result of "one party rule" in Wisconsin and "political gamesmanship."

"This is not the Wisconsin that we have lived in before and the people of this state have to recognize the dangers when you have one party that controls every level of power. What happened is the special interests came in. The special interests that supported many legislators, that supported the governor, supported many Supreme Court justices, and they wanted their way and the state Supreme Court said 'fine, you can have your way,'" Barrett said.

Barrett said the ruling could also worsen the mistrust some residents feel toward the police department.

"I want this to be a community where the residents can work with and respect the police and the police and work with and respect the members of the community," Barrett said, "That’s what I need to have as mayor. But I can’t have an occupying force in this city."

Republican lawmakers struck down the residency law in 2013, but Milwaukee appealed the law and won at the appellate level -- but the Wisconsin Supreme Court disagrees with the city's argument that it's not necessarily a statewide issue since the law would impact Milwaukee more than other places.

"There`s always a concern of outflow of talented and middle-class, upper middle-class individuals but the question that should be asked is why are they all leaving? What`s going wrong in the city that people who work for it don`t want to live there?" Tom Kamenick with the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty said.

Seager said the decision shouldn't make residents feel any less safe.

"Whether I maintain my residence in Milwaukee, or I choose to move outside the city of Milwaukee, does not, in the least bit, diminish the professionalism, the level of service, or the dedication to the community in which we serve," Seager said.

Governor Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker's spokesman is praising the ruling. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson called Thursday's decision "a big win for individual freedom." He also said it's a win for Milwaukee "as they have a larger base to attract employees."

The city is allowed to require that workers live within 15 miles of Milwaukee. However, the only way the residency rule will come back is if the Wisconsin Legislature changes the law.

The Milwaukee Police Association issued this statement:

"Today’s Supreme Court decision was both right and just.  It made clear that Wisconsin municipal employees share the same right enjoyed by all other Wisconsin citizens to reside where they desire."

The Milwaukee Professional Firefighter's Association released this statement:

"This morning, in a 5-2 majority decision, the Supreme Court of the state of Wisconsin has upheld the original law signed into effect July 1st, 2013.

It has been an arduous journey, however, it gives credence to the judicial system when a matter of importance and magnitude reaches the Supreme Court, the elected Justices exercise their integrity and apply the Constitution of the State of Wisconsin in coming to this conclusion.

This is a victory for ALL municipal employees throughout the state of Wisconsin. Having the opportunity to make a choice in where said employee takes residence certainly does not diminish the professionalism, service or dedication to the community.

Furthermore, it cannot go unsaid that working in concert alongside our brother and sisters in blue, the Milwaukee Police Association, helped achieve this monumental task. The Milwaukee Police Association and Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association have and will continue to build upon the strong relationship that has been built over the last several years.

Lastly, and of equal importance, a deep appreciation to Governor Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Speaker Vos, members of the Joint Finance Committee and all elected officials within the state legislature that assisted in attaining this goal."