The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Star-Times in a public records dispute with Juneau County.
In a 4-3 decision issued Tuesday, the high court let stand a 2011 appeals court ruling that granted the newspaper full access to legal bills issued by a Milwaukee law firm and paid by the county’s insurer.
“Today, the court affirmed the public’s right to information and the presumption in the open records law that the public has a right to government information except in extremely limited circumstances,” said Madison attorney Christa Westerberg, who argued the newspaper’s case.
Matt Meyers, who became general manager of the Star-Times and several other newspapers north of Madison a year after the suit was filed, said he was happy with the decision and appreciative of Westerberg’s work but disappointed that it sometimes takes lawsuits to ensure access to public records.
“Transparency is vital to honest and effective government,” Meyers said. “Open records aren’t just for journalists. They’re part of democracy, and you can’t be a responsible citizen without being informed.”
Last year, the Portage Daily Register, which Meyers also oversees, sued the city of Portage in an open-records case. The matter was settled out of court, and the city released 107 pages of city department heads’ performance reviews to the newspaper.
Meyers said he was grateful to former publisher George Althoff, his predecessor, for pursuing the Juneau County case.
Althoff sued the county in 2010 after it provided a reporter with heavily redacted versions of invoices submitted by Milwaukee attorney Michele Ford to the Wisconsin Mutual Insurance Corp. under a contract between the corporation and the county.
Ford defended Sheriff Brent Oleson in a protracted employment dispute with sheriff’s Lt. Jeremy Haske, who was suspended with pay for alleged misconduct in 2008 and fired in 2010.
A circuit court judge dismissed the newspaper’s complaint, saying the invoices were not covered by the Public Records Law because they were generated by a contract between the law firm and the insurance company and not the county.
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court ruling in October 2011 and a month later the county appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the high court ruled Tuesday that the law firm invoices fell under the contractors records provision of the law because the firm had been doing the county’s work even though it had been retained by the county’s insurer and not the county itself.
“To characterize the invoices as solely private records under an agreement between the insurance company and the law firm is to turn a blind eye to the realities of the relationship between the County, the insurance company, and the law firm in the present case,” Abrahamson wrote.
Abrahamson was joined by justices N. Patrick Crooks, Ann Bradley and Patience Roggensack.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice David Prosser said the majority decision holds “serious negative ramifications for the practice of law” in Wisconsin because it did not adequately deal with the subject of attorney-client privilege.
“The majority opinion permits Wisconsin’s public records law to breach privileged communications, contrary to sound public policy and the text of the public records statute,” Prosser wrote.
Justices Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman joined Prosser’s dissent while also noting that the issue of attorney-client privilege was not at argued in the case before the Supreme Court.
Madison attorney Bryan Kleinmaier represented the county. He declined to comment on the ruling. Ford did not respond to a request for comment.
Westerberg, who serves as vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the case breaks new ground in interpreting the Public Records Law.
“There have been very few Supreme Court decisions interpreting the contactor’s provision of the open records law, whether you’re talking about attorneys as private contractors or anybody else,” Westerberg said.
The court ordered the case remanded to Adams County Circuit Judge Charles Pollex, who presided over the original suit.
The newspaper also sought damages of $100 and attorney fees.
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