Judge John C. Albert of Dane County Circuit 3 issued a letter to what he called the "Rotunda Community" on Thursday evening, commending their peaceful protest and telling them that he had ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a hearing on whether the state should obey another judge's injunction against blocking public access to the building. In the letter, he said he would order the Madison, Wisconsin Capitol buidling open to the public during regular business hours on Monday morning.
However, "Staying after the building is closed is prohibited," the judge wrote. "Protests and demonstrations can be held at any time when the Capitol is open during normal business hours and, of course, if either house of the legislature is in session or any public hearing is being held."
The Department of Administration always had the authority under administrative rules to kick people out of the Capitol at closing time, attorney Allison Ritter, pointed out. By issuing the order himself, in Ritter's opinion, the judge allowed Governor Scott Walker to avoid taking the fall for any arrests or unpleasantness that might follow.
Protesters were not immediately sure how to react to the judge's letter.
As legal observers led by Peg Lautenschlager entered the Capitol through the Martin Luther King entrance to help make sure any arrests were peaceful and orderly, there were chants of "Let Us In!" and "Whose House? Our House!"
But Iris Patterson, a teacher and community representative for the Wisconsin Workers Solidarity Sit-In (the group that has been occupying the Capitol) grabbed a megaphone and called to the crowd, "We need to understand that we have won this!"
"She read the judge's order aloud: "By 8 a.m. March 8, 2011, the Department of Administration shall open the doors of the State Capitol ... [and rescind policies blocking access] -- we have won."
"All the members have decided they are going to come out peacefully," Patterson told me.
"Well, of the 99 there are a handful -- maybe 5 who are not so sure -- I am working on getting ahold of those few," she said.
As a chant of "Let Us In!" started up again around her, Patterson took the megaphone a second time to remind the crowd of their victory:
"Guys, we are not worried about getting in here. This space is ours tomorrow. Tonight we need to focus on those people who have been in the building and holding this place and give them our love and support."
The crowd listened quietly, then started up a different chant: "This is what democracy looks like!"
All in all, it was a peaceful, festive crowd. Free food was still flowing at the tables set up to accept donated sandwiches, tortilla chips, and lots of other delicious fare from area restaurants.
The nightmare accounts of protesters intimidating and frightening staff in the governor's office, delivered by witnesses for the state during the hearings in Judge Albert's chambers, seemed ridiculous in the context of this scene.
Still, there are some reasons for concern about what will happen next.
As he issued his decision in his courtroom two blocks away, Judge Albert expressed concerns about a possible 'tragedy" if the Capitol building continues to house mass protests. He recommended the Department of Administration come up with fire code regulations and a maximum building capacity for the Capitol, which could lead to future restrictions.
Allison Ritter, a private attorney from Milwaukee who came to Madison to help out as a legal observer and became a plaintiff in the case, said: "I think that what's going on right now is the DOA has had the ability from the beginning to arrest people under the administrative code. They could have cleared the Capitol after business hours any time they wanted, but they've chosen not to."
"It's my belief the administration didn't want that on them, so they've turned this entire injunction hearing -- which is supposed to be about the public getting access to the building during regular business hours -- into a mandate on people sleeping overnight in the Capitol. They kept talking about that," she continued.
"The judge was definitely complicit in it, but that's not the issue, the issue is this was supposed to be about public access during regular business hours," Ritter said. "I think the judge allowed the DOA to hijack the process and turn it into this thing about the protesters sleeping there."
"The fact that the state refused to comply with the order for 3 days shows they were acting in bad faith."
At the Capitol, as the Progressive and other media outlets tweeted the judge's decision, protesters engaged in a New Orleans-style funeral march up State Street rushed in through the open Capitol doors.
But shortly afterward, police, lawyers, and protesters worked together peacefully to obey the judge's order to clear out.
It was an affirmation of Judge Albert's glowing description of the protests:
"'Demonstrators' is not a word that should be used in a vein of disrespect," he told the courtroom as he issued his order. "The nurses, teachers, who have been the participants ... those are professions that generally speaking attract law-abiding, caring people."
The judge also gave a shout-out to the "attorneys ... prison guards, firefighters, iron workers -- those people were exercising a very basic Constitutional right."
At the same time, Judge Albert tried to smooth things over with the Administration, saying that their "unparalleled" rules blocking access to the Capitol building, which "in many, many ways closed the Capitol impermissibly" and made it "difficult" for Democrats and Republican members alike to do their work, were still "a good faith effort" by the Administration to maintain order in "what could have been a potentially dangerous situation" because of the size of the crowds.
What the judge did seem to reject was the State's effort to paint the protesters as frightening and potentially violent.
In testimony Nathan Berken, a staffer for Representative Annette Williams, described how, "one gentleman in particular was screaming in my boss's face. I told him to back away. It was quite a frightening experience."
He described a general feeling of "intimidation" and said Democratic State Representatives "wore orange shirts, I think so the protesters would know they were on the protesters' side ..."
Peg Lautenschlager objected to this and he had to stop developing his ideas about Democrats' colluding in the intimidation.
Lucas Bacher, another Republican staffer, also described protesters screaming and yelling and banging on his door, causing him to feel unsafe.
"Were you present during the Tea Party rallies?" Lautenschlager asked him. "Yes," he answered. She pointed out that people were wearing firearms during those rallies.
"That is legal," Bacher replied.
"So is speech," said Lautenschlager.
The weapons issue came out at the beginning of the hearing on Thursday when the State called the chief of the Capitol Police to testify that 41 rounds of rifle ammunition had been found at 9:20 the same morning scattered on the sidewalk around the Capitol.
The State also claimed that peeling the taped signs and posters off the Capitol walls could cost as much as $7 million, according to an estimate by an unnamed private vendor.
For her part, Lautenschlager had a firefighter testify that he was unable to respond to a 911 call from inside the Capitol, because police refused him entry.
The most tearful testimony came from Scott Walker's executive assistant, Dorothy Moore, who testified that she was afraid to leave her office. "It was excruciatingly loud -- the drums, the bagpipes, the horns, the chants about the governor. You could not concentrate ... that went on for a good week."
"I've had security take me to my car every night," Moore said.
Protesters surround her at her car "They take their signs and kind of push them on me," she testified.
"The profanity is outside our window ... We had one guy on the steps who had a megaphone and screamed and screamed all day ... saying stuff about the governor and his family ... We were just praying his voice would die."
Lonna Moroney, a legal assistant at the State Capitol said the protesters had been so intimidating, people were cancelling appointments for tours. "That's been unfortunate, because we feel it's important to meet with people in the community," she said.
Starting Friday, those tours should be running again.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wis. Assembly Dems Climb Out Capitol Windows to Meet Constituents."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.