Nass urges legislature to sue UW System over COVID-19 policies

Bascom Hall, Bascom Hill and the central University of Wisconsin-Madison campus are pictured in...
Bascom Hall, Bascom Hill and the central University of Wisconsin-Madison campus are pictured in an aerial view during autumn on Oct. 12, 2013. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)(WSAW)
Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 5:51 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The University of Wisconsin System could soon face a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin legislature over whether university administrators or an Assembly committee have the final say over mask and vaccine restrictions on the UW campuses.

State Sen. Steven Nass, who co-chairs the committee that is claiming jurisdiction over the university’s decisions on COVID-19 policy, announced Thursday he plans to ask his fellow Republicans, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Sen. Maj. Leader Devin LeMahieu, to file a lawsuit on behalf of the committee against UW System.

In early August, Nass’ committee, the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, determined it would have final oversight any COVID-19 action taken by UW schools by requiring university administrators to go through the legislative rule-making procedures. That would then give the Whitewater Republican’s committee a chance to strike down the provision. Nass pointed out that Thursday would have been the deadline for UW System to submit a rule.

UW System has rejected the committee’s assertion of power, with interim president Tommy Thompson going so far as to tell lawmakers last month to “get out of my way.”

Tommy Thompson, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary and Wisconsin governor, puts on...
Tommy Thompson, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary and Wisconsin governor, puts on a mask in a public service announcement for the Wisconsin Hospital Association(Wisconsin Hospital Association)

In his response Thursday to Nass’ letter, co-authored by UW System Board of Regents President Edmund Manydeeds III, the former Republican governor argued that the lawmaker and his fellow co-chair, Rep. Adam Neylon, never held a public hearing on the matter.

Thompson and Manydeeds stated that such a hearing would have given the committee a chance to identify the policies in dispute, and that, in its current form, “the directive is overly broad and lacks reasonable specificity by which to evaluate and discuss concerns rationally.”

Furthermore, they noted that the committee had not sought to exercise its claimed discretion until now, fourteen months after UW System began taking actions in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The university system pointed out that if such guidance existed last year, it may not have been able to set up its community testing or vaccination sites – nor could it have isolated students.

“We believe this further indicates the tacit acknowledgment of our longstanding authority to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our campus communities,” the letter stated. Administrators contended the legislature had “long recognized” their authority over those core functions.

Thompson and Manydeeds’ letter also sought to turn the language of a bill introduced in May against Nass. In his proposal, the Assembly member explicitly sought to prohibit UW System schools, among others, from requiring COVID-19 testing or vaccines. While the measure didn’t make it anywhere, UW’s top administrators questioned why the legislature would need to rein in power Nass claims they don’t have.

Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay)
Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay)

Republicans in the legislature have not all lined up behind Nass and his desire for a lawsuit. Sen. Robert Cowles issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying he won’t support a legal challenge. He says tying the system’s hands isn’t in the best interests of local communities or businesses.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke tweeted on Aug. 26 that a lawsuit would only add more confusion during an already stressful time.

In his statement Thursday, Nass accused those Republicans of “go(ing) soft” and compared the fight to one that ended Dept. of Health Services’ extension of the Safer at Home order, which the Wisconsin Supreme Court ended when it ruled, that the extension of the original emergency order would have needed to go through the rule making process.

“Sadly, some in my party will only oppose unlawful Covid-19 mandates when issued by the other party,” Nass concluded.

Courtesy: State Senator Steve Nass
Courtesy: State Senator Steve Nass(WEAU)

NBC15 News reached out to Vos and LeMahieu’s office about a potential lawsuit and will update this story with their response.

Copyright 2021 WMTV. All rights reserved.