Statement on claims of legislative immunity to state Open Records Law

By Bill Lueders In the news - FOIC press releases
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A statement by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council regarding new claims that state lawmakers are effectively immune from the state's Open Records Law.

Statement on claims of legislative immunity to state Open Records Law

September 13, 2013

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is shocked and saddened that a member of the state Legislature is, with the help of the state Attorney General’s Office, effectively claiming immunity from the state’s Open Records Law.

As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, is advancing a legal argument that “would let all lawmakers ignore the Open Records Law.” The senator claims she cannot be sued while the Legislature is in session and that the session extends for a legislator’s entire term.

Our state's openness laws are fundamental to its ability to function as a democracy. Members of the Legislature, which passed these laws, ought to respect that. We call upon Sen. Vulmir to reconsider her position in light of the damage it could cause to the state.

So far as we can recall, no lawmaker has ever before tried to defeat the state's open records law by employing this ruse. We are deeply disappointed in both Sen. Vukmir and the Attorney General's Office, for the position it has taken, in its Sept. 11, 2013 court filing.

The state Attorney General’s Office has statutory authority for interpreting and enforcing the state’s openness laws. In the past, the office has initiated legal action against members of the Legislature.

In fact, lawmakers have been sued for violating the Open Records Law on a number of occasions, listed below. They sometimes lost, sometimes settled, and sometimes won. But in no prior instance did they claim to be above the law.

Wisconsin’s traditions of open government, including the ability to litigate cases of alleged noncompliance, have served the state well. That is not a tradition with which we should dispense.

Prior cases of Open Records lawsuits against state of Wisconsin lawmakers:

WI State Journal v. WI Joint Committee on Legislative Organization, Sen. Alan Lasse, Sen. Mary Panzer, Rep. John Gard, Dane County Case Number 2003CV003343. Brought by news media to obtain an investigative report into operations of the Joint Committee on Legislative organization. The report was released. See Journal Sentinel article.

State of WI v. David A Zien and Scott Gunderson, Dane County Case Number 2005CV002896. Brought by state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, alleging that the lawmakers were violating the law in not providing access to draft bills being shared with others. The case was dismissed by an appellate court because Lautenschlager was no longer in office; see AP article.

Wisconsin State v. Jeffrey Stone, Milwaukee County Case Number 2006CX000003. Brought by the Attorney General’s Office under Peg Lautenschlager. The case was ultimately dismissed when Lautenschlager’s successor, J.B. Van Hollen, decided not to pursue it. See AP article.

Democratic Party of WI v. State Sen. Dan Kapanke, Dane County Case Number 2009CV003928. This case settled when Sen. Kapanke produced the disputed records; he later promised to reimburse taxpayers for attorneys fees. See Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

Lakeland Times v. Mark Miller, Dane County Case Number 2010CV002011. Minocqua-based newspaper sued state Sen. Mark Miller, for not providing records in response to a request. The case was settled with Miller agreeing to pay fees and costs. See Lakeland Times article.

One Wisconsin Now v. Alberta Darling, Dane County Case Number 2011CV003529. Liberal advocacy group sued state Sen. Darling over her failure to release records. Case is settled out of court, with Darling agreeing to release the records and pay the group’s legal fees. See OWN statement.

Center for Media & Democracy v. five state lawmakers, Dane County Case Number 2012CV003922. The same group now trying to sue Sen. Vukmir sued five state representatives (Jeremy Thiesfeldt, Pat Strachota, Tyler August, Dan Knodl and Tom Larsen) for not providing records on request. The lawmakers settled, agreeing to release the records and pay costs and fees. See Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

John K Maciver Institute v. Jon Erpenbach, Grant County Case Number 2012CV000063. A conservative public policy group sued state Sen. Erpenbach, alleging he violated the open records law in redacting identifying information from requested records. A circuit court judge ruled in Erpenbach’s favor but the case is on appeal. See Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty article.