Senate passes bill to undo Wisconsin open records ruling

The Wisconsin Senate is moving to undo a controversial state Supreme Court decision that transparency advocates say gutted open records laws when it was issued last year
The Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, Wis.
The Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, Wis.(WEAU)
Published: Apr. 19, 2023 at 1:56 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Senate moved on Wednesday to undo a controversial state Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for state agencies to delay handing over public records.

The bipartisan bill, which moves next to the Assembly, would make it easier for people who sue over open records requests to recover attorney's fees.

The state Supreme Court's conservative majority ruled 4-3 last year that if a government authority voluntarily turns over records before a lawsuit goes to trial, then the records requester who brought the lawsuit is not entitled to attorney's fees. Essentially, the ruling eliminated consequences for state agencies that wait to turn over records until they have been sued.

Without the ability to easily recover attorney's fees, filing a lawsuit for records would be cost-prohibitive to most requesters, transparency advocates warned after the ruling. Open records laws play a key role in government accountability by allowing citizens to request public documents from government agencies.

If the bill the Senate passed on Wednesday receives approval from the Assembly and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, it would again allow requesters to recover attorney's fees as soon as a court says their lawsuit contributed to an agency's decision to release records. Currently, requesters have to persuade a judge to continue with the lawsuit and rule in their favor, even after records have been released, to recover attorney's fees.

The measure has support from transparency groups including the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Wisconsin Transparency Project.