Thursday, January 10, 2013

Wisc. High Court Backs Weekly in Public Records Law Dispute

English: Seal of the Wisconsin Supreme Court
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a controversial 4-3 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court this week upheld a Court of Appeals ruling ordering county officials to turn over unredacted legal bills paid by the county's insurance carrier to the weekly Juneau County Star-Times, which sought the invoices under the state's Public Records Law [Wis. Stat. secs. 19.31-19.39].

As reported by the Lee Enterprises-owned, Mauston, Wisc.-based Star-Times, the High Court decision written by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson supported the Court of Appeals October 2011, ruling that invoices submitted by a Milwaukee attorney defending the county sheriff in an employment matter involving a subordinate officer to county insurer Wisconsin Mutual Ins. Co. were covered by the Public Records Law. The Appeals Court reversed a circuit court judge's rulings that the bills were exempt because a  private law firm and  private insurance company, and not the county, were parties to the agreement that generated the invoices.

Justice Abrahamson's opinion noted that although the insurance carrier, rather than the county, had retained the law firm to defend Sheriff Brent Oleson, the attorney performed work on the county's behalf, which subjected the invoices to production under the so-called contractors records provision of the Public Records Law [Wis. Stat. sec. 19.36 (3)]. The provision at issue states: "Subject to sub.(12), each authority shall make available for inspection and copying under s. 1935(1) any record produced or collected under a contract entered into by the authority with a person other than an authority to the same extent as if the record were maintained by the authority."

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice David Prosser said the majority's decision failed adequately to address attorney-client privilege by ordering the release of the invoices.  Former Star-Times Publisher George Althoff sued Juneau County in 2010 after heavily redacted versions of the legal bills were produced to the twice-weekly paper. Matt Meyers, current General Manager of the 2,500 circulation weekly, haled his predecessor's efforts to obtain the documents.

The Supreme Court decision remanded the case to Adams County Circuit Judge Charles Pollex, who originally rejected the Star-Times records request. According to the Star-Times article, the paper is seeking attorneys' fees and $100 damages from the county.

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