The state "closed the Capitol impermissibly" when it began restricting public access to the building, a Dane County judge ruled Thursday, ordering the limits be lifted no later than 8 a.m. Monday.
The ruling led to the end of more than two weeks of protester presence at the state Capitol, as the final holdouts left the building after 10 p.m. Thursday
Judge John Albert said the state may impose "reasonable restraints" on the time, place and manner of future protests. He also ordered the state Department of Administration to remove protesters — who have been spending the night in the Capitol — after 6 p.m. when it normally closes, saying, "If the building is closed, there's no one to listen to a demonstration."
Albert said the restriction of public access to a trickle by DOA was "a good-faith effort" to manage the situation. "DOA and law enforcement were caught off guard by the quickly growing number of people coming to the Capitol," he said.
But he rejected claims by officials in Gov. Scott Walker's administration that disruptions caused by the protests over proposed limits on collective bargaining necessitated the strict access policy.
He ordered the DOA to "open the state Capitol to all members of the public and rescind the access policies put in place (Monday) and replace them with the access policies in effect on Jan. 28, 2011."
Albert said his intent was to facilitate the reopening of the Capitol consistent with the free assembly and free speech provisions of the state and U.S. constitutions. "Demonstrator is not a word that should be used in a vein of disrespect," he said, adding, "These people were exercising an important right."
But Albert also said the level of access in the Capitol could not return to the serious safety risk that existed at the peak of the protests, comparing it to the 1993 crush at Camp Randall Stadium that injured 69. "We are fortunate that nothing happened, but it could have," said Albert.
Albert expressed concern over the restricted access this week, noting firefighters had to go to a second entrance after officers refused to let them into the Capitol when another officer was hit in an elevator.
Tense, brief standoff
As word of the order for overnight protesters to leave made it to the Capitol, about a hundred protesters who were marching up State Street in a New Orleans-style funeral march managed to enter through the State Street door. Dozens of officers raced to that entrance to the rotunda in a tense but brief standoff.
While some eventually left, about 50 people waited to hear the order read to them before deciding whether to stay and be arrested.
With many protesters in tears, one urged the group to leave and end the occupation — which has captured national headlines since mid-February — on a high note.
"We've all made our point. The world is watching," the man said.
Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs also urged protesters to comply, saying, "I am asking you as a person to leave. I don't want to arrest anyone."
But many seemed intent on staying, at least until they had a chance to see Albert's ruling.
Rudy Fox, 55, of Gordon, who said she has stage 4 colon cancer and is afraid of losing her BadgerCare Core Plan health coverage under changes Walker wants to make to Medicaid, said "if they arrest me and lock me up, I will be here tomorrow."
Attorney Peg Lautenschlager, who represents unions seeking the temporary restraining order Albert granted, joined the protesters in the center of the rotunda, calming the crowd by assuring them the "people's house" would again be open to the people.
"We won this battle," Lautenschlager, a former state attorney general, told them.
Many protesters deliberated about what to do. Some worried the Walker administration would go back on its promise to let them back in, but others said they wanted to prove to Wisconsin — and the world — that they were better than him.
In the end, all but a handful decided that since they came together as one inside the Capitol, they wanted to leave together. A large group marched out at about 9 p.m., drumming and singing "Solidarity Forever."
Several Democratic Assembly members, some with tears in their eyes, thanked them. After marching out an exit, the protesters erupted into chants of, "We'll be back tomorrow."
A small, final group of protesters left shortly after 10 p.m. There were no arrests reported.
‘It is a funeral'
Earlier, thousands of protesters stretching most of the length of State Street marched to the Capitol in the New Orleans-style funeral march.
"Walker says cutbacks! We say fight back!" some chanted.
In the middle of the procession were marchers carrying five black caskets bearing slogans like "Stop the Koch brothers" and "save collective-bargaining."
"I'm just saddened," said Paul Zimmerman, 47, a maintenance worker at UW-Madison. "It is a funeral. It's our funeral if we get this budget. It's our future. It's our mortgages. It's our health care. It's our voice. It's the death of all that if this bill passes."
Since Monday, the DOA has shut down all access to the Capitol except by employees, members of the media and members of the public to attend hearings or meet with their senators or representatives. But some legislators said they and their constituents have had difficulty getting inside.
All visitors have been required to enter through the King Street doors. Visitors without an appointment are admitted on a one-to-one basis as others leave.
The rules were intended to thwart the overnight occupation of the Capitol. Some diehard protesters continued to spend the night there this week — although pillows and sleeping bags have been banned — while others began sleeping outside in a camp they dubbed "Walkerville."
Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said it will cost $6 million to restore the interior of the Capitol, and another $500,000 to remove all the tape from the marble where thousands of fliers and posters were hung since the protests began Feb. 14. Huebsch estimated it would cost an additional $1 million to restore the exterior. But others questioned those figures.
In a statement, DOA spokeswoman Carla Vigue said there are 43 types of stone in the Capitol, "each with its own unique chemical composition and structure" and "inappropriate cleaning techniques could exacerbate the problem and can cause more damage instead of clean up the mess."
Staff members from the governor's office and others who work at the Capitol testified it's been difficult to get their work done amid the noise and tumult of the protests - which some days involved thousands of protesters, many chanting, banging drums or playing bagpipes — and they've felt unsafe at times.
Live ammunition found
Earlier Thursday, police reported finding dozens of rounds of live ammunition outside the Capitol.
Dane County deputies found 11 rounds near the State Street entrance Thursday morning, UW-Madison Police Chief Susan Riseling said. Twenty-nine rounds were found near the King Street entrance, and one round was found near the North Hamilton Street entrance, Riseling said.
— State Journal reporters Mary Spicuzza, Dee J. Hall and Samara Kalk Derby contributed to this story.