September 13, 2013

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council statement on claims of legislative immunity to open records law

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.

Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa.

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:

  • Yesterday Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed a motion in Dane County Circuit Court arguing Sen. Vukmir is immune from lawsuit while she remains in office. It was an attempt to claim that she doesn’t need to comply with, and turn over documents requested in a Freedom of Information Act request about an ALEC conference she recently attended.

    Talk about saying one thing and doing the other, in May of 2012 I got on video Van Hollen saying this. http://youtu.be/Dqb5DANmB9Y?t=1m53s

    “I’m really blessed in a number of different ways, one of which is I’m a strong believer in openness in government. Obviously if I want to restore integrity to our Department of Justice by making sure that we enforce and properly interpret the rule of law then of course I’m going to want people at all levels of government to have integrity as well. And what better way to have integrity than when we have openness. When we have open meetings, when we have public records that are readily available, everybody does their job better, everybody does their job more lawfully, and if there is some reason that people feel the need to cover things up, maybe they should not have been doing them in the first place.”
    “Who wouldn’t want their citizens to know what they are doing for them, if they are doing the right thing?”

    http://www.prwatch.org/news/2013/09/12242/wisconsin-attorney-general-seeks-vitiate-open-records-law-protect-alec’s-national

  • Rebecca Katers

    I can’t believe any Wisconsin legislator would sink so low. This news is appalling.

    What country is this?