On June 23, 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 opinion that the City of Milwaukee can no longer enforce a requirement that police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers maintain bona fide residence within the city boundaries. The ruling reverses the state appeals court’s decision that a 2013 state law, Wis. Stat. § 66.0502, did not supersede the City of Milwaukee’s broader residency requirement.

Wisconsin Stat. § 66.0502 prohibits local governmental units, including cities, villages, towns, counties and school districts, from enforcing any residency requirements as a condition of employment beyond requiring non-volunteer police, firefighters and emergency personnel to live within fifteen miles of the jurisdictional boundaries of the local governmental unit to which they are assigned or by which they are employed. On the same day § 66.0502 took effect, the City of Milwaukee passed a resolution mandating that its residency requirement, a feature of the city’s charter since 1938, continue to be enforced despite the new state law. Shortly thereafter, the Milwaukee Police Association filed suit, and some time later, the Milwaukee Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 215 intervened.

The Police Association contended that the legislature in enacting Wis. Stat. § 66.0502 found public-employee-residency requirements to be an issue of statewide concern and that the statute applies in a facially uniform manner to all local municipalities, even if the direct impact is not equal at the time of enactment. Therefore, it argued, the state statute should supersede the city’s residency requirement even in light of the home rule amendment.

The home rule amendment to the Wisconsin State Constitution, Article XI, § 3(1), states in pertinent part that “cities and villages organized pursuant to state law may determine their local affairs and government, subject only to [the Wisconsin] constitution and to such enactments of the legislature of statewide concern as with uniformity shall affect every city or every village.”

The City of Milwaukee maintained that the residency requirement fell within its authority over local affairs because the city had interests in (1) maintaining a tax base from which to draw revenue; (2) employees sharing a common community investment as residents of the city; and (3) efficiently delivering city services. The city argued that because Milwaukee was the specific focus of Wis. Stat. § 66.0502, it did not equally impact all local governmental units in the state, and could therefore not supersede the residency requirement under the home rule amendment.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court majority rejected the city’s argument, holding that the home rule amendment allows a legislative enactment to trump a city charter ordinance when it addresses either a matter of statewide concern, or it uniformly affects every city or village. While the court indicated that residency requirements are a matter of both state and local concern, it declined to determine which interest was paramount, and instead assumed, without deciding, that the statute was a matter of local affairs. However, the court went on to find that Wis. Stat. § 66.0502 was facially uniform because it explicitly applies to any city, village, town, county or school district and, therefore, trumped the city’s residency requirement. The court stated that the home rule amendment was not intended to limit the power of the legislature. Rather, it was intended to grant new authority to local government with such authority limited by the Wisconsin Constitution and state law. The court clarified that “the Legislature has the power to legislate on matters of local affairs when its enactment uniformly affects every city or every village, notwithstanding the home rule amendment.”

On a separate issue, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals decision that the Police Association was not entitled to relief or damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because it failed to meet the requirements necessary to prevail on such a claim, specifically that it showed a “deprivation of rights, privileges, or immunities protected by the Constitutions of the laws of the United States.”