Wisconsin Supreme Court Limits Lawsuits Seeking to Halt the Release of Public Records
Court dismisses case brought by WMC seeking to stop release of COVID records
Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and other business lobby groups are prohibited from suing to stop the release of statistical DHS records about COVID outbreaks and tracing at large businesses. Specifically, the court ruled that a 2003 law passed by the legislature to bar such suits could not be circumvented by filing an action under the declaratory judgment statute.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for transparency,” said Attorney Tom Kamenick, President and Founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, which represented the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in the case. “Giving free reign to anybody claiming they might be harmed by public records to sue and stop their release would have been a disaster for the state.”
In 1996, the Wisconsin Supreme Court created a new right out of thin air, allowing certain record subjects to sue to stop the release of their records – the Woznicki case. The decision led to an explosion of such cases, tying up innumerable public records in litigation for years. It was such a disaster that the legislature created a special committee to fix the problem, and in 2003, the legislature created Section 19.356. Section 19.356 says that “Except as authorized in this section or as otherwise provided by statute, . . . no person is entitled to judicial review of the decision of an authority to provide a requester with access to a record.”
The Supreme Court today categorically rejected WMC’s arguments that they could still file a suit seeking judicial review of the DHS’s decision to release records about COVID at large businesses. As the court said, the “decision of whether to permit public access to a record in response to a request lies with the custodian of the record, not its subject.” “[N]o one has a right to block the release of a public record unless otherwise specified.” “Therefore, we hold that § 19.356(1) clearly and unambiguously eliminated the common-law rights on which WMC relies.”
“This litigation demonstrates perfectly why such suits are not allowed,” further explained Kamenick. “Even though the case was fast-tracked, WMC was able to delay the release of public records almost two years without ever proving release would be illegal. Nobody should have to wait that long for records.”